IS THIS the future of inner-city and rural commercial transportation? According to final year automotive design student, 22-year-old Ralph R Debbas from Greece, his ‘Mobile Utility’ (MU) transport vehicle can be “realistically produced today”. What’s more, considered interest has already been shown towards Debbas’ MU concept by French car giant, Renault.
His latest design idea was showcased alongside nine other finalists at this year’s Trophee de l’Argus in France’s capital city, Paris. The significance of those short listed and the eventual winner to European car companies is seminal, hence the attendance of Peugeot’s very own Chief Executive, Christian Peugeot and Renault’s Chief Designer at the company’s Utility Vehicles department.
Founded in 1993 by the influential French automotive title, L’argus de l’automobile, the Trophee de l’Argus is one of Europe’s most prestigious design competitions. Besides helping young aspirants place a foot on the employment ladder, it also tests their ingenuity, mettle and character, especially with a design brief that asked candidates to ‘Invent a vehicle that is useful for society’.
Debbas talks me through the many presentation boards he created and how the speech he devised in French complimented the visual ideas present on each. As he does so, it becomes increasingly apparent that his design is not only clever, but more importantly, realistic.
Referred to as the ‘Delivery Vehicle’ in its complete form, the MU actually comes in two parts, and in total has five unique functions. The front section is a one occupant vehicle only, with function being prioritised over form. Called ‘Delivery MU’, it resembles a car come tricycle that delivers goods in spherical packages called ‘cocoons’.
The rear of the MU concept can be used as a sell point stand to display and/or sell goods from, with the transparent enclosing screens doubling up as either shade from the sun or shelter from the rain. Alternatively, ‘Passenger’ can be used to pick-up and drop off human occupants for business related purposes.
The MU is 100% environmentally friendly, an important trait to instil, particularly in today’s economic climate where businesses demand low emission, high mileage vehicles: this concept possesses each in abundance and duly delivers on both counts.
It is ingenious in every conceivable way, with diligence and meticulousness prevalent down to the very last detail, even the nuts and bolts that hold the structure together. But without doubt, the most striking aspect of the vehicle is its engine, or engines for want of a better description.
The MU adopts four of the ‘Active Wheels’ as designed by tyre company Michelin, niche car maker Heuliez and telecommunications giant Orange. Their inclusion means maintenance is kept to a minimum and lower ownership costs as there is no cooling, lubricant or exhaust system.
Instead, positioned inside each of the wheel’s hubs is a 43kg ‘package’ comprising of an electric motor powered by lithium-ion batteries, an active suspension system and disc brakes. Debbas explains that the MU’s two front and two rear motors combine to produce 60Kw – the equivalent to 90bhp.
Their simplicity and compactness also has a direct impact on the MU’s interior packaging, helping to free up space by eliminating the presence or need for mechanical components such as a transmission, for instance.
Furthermore, each of the four wheels can be operated independently of one another depending on the distance being travelled, the load’s weight, or the environment in which the MU vehicle is being driven.
The charge of each motors’ battery is improved with the aid of ‘regenerative braking’, a system that relies on the capturing of kinetic energy which is then stored in the MU’s batteries, thus maintaining high-levels of charge for future use.
“This is very simple,” explains Debbas, “because you don’t have any other engineering aspect to maintain except each of the four wheels. There are many factors of the car that makes it environmentally friendly and fully feasible for today.
“This is technology that we have today and can be used in the production of a vehicle like the Mobile Utility concept. I decided to use an aluminium frame similar to the Smart car’s safety cell because it is cheap and easy to make.” This is because the MU uses a ‘superform aluminium’ technique that is both easy to manufacture and shape.
He added: “Using technology that is available today from Michelin eliminates the equipment and engineering necessary for a modern day vehicle, meaning it is very cheap and easy to produce.”
The amount of power that is deployed and the vehicle’s speed is solely determined by using a ‘twist and go’ function on the steering wheel, similar to the mechanism employed on a motorbike.
Placed inside the diameter of the steering wheel are a number of functions, such as a Global Positioning System (GPS), speed and weight indicator, an on-board computer and a delivery tracking device that follows up orders when the MU is in the city.
The MU’s exterior is as equally striking and innovative, achieved not only by the sleek appearance and athletic stance, but predominantly due to the lavish use of glass and metallic materials.
“What attracted the judges was the simple shape of the vehicle and the fact it is all see through because today’s utility vehicles are all bulky and very square, whereas my design’s shape and appearance is very pure,” revealed Debbas.
Pure is a key phrasing in this design as Debbas reassured me that his MU concept is “100% eco-friendly, 100% recyclable” with low carbon dioxide emissions and a long mileage range guaranteed.
Reflecting on the time he spent in France and the response(s) to his idea, Debbas admitted he did everything reasonably possible to give himself the best possible chance of winning. So what did the judges think?
Debbas said: “I was impressed by the reaction I received towards my project; I wasn’t expecting that at all. To see the judges stand up and clap after my presentation was fantastic. They loved the idea, the concept, and the presentation which they considered to be very professional and of a high standard.”
The most surprising disclosure to emerge throughout our interview is how Debbas finalised the design within a two week time frame, complete with movie animation. It says a lot about his character and his seamless knack of, and appreciation for good design.
With a positive outlook, Debbas’ focus now turns to the completion of his final year project where yet again he is daring to redefine the automotive landscape. Although some have expressed trepidation towards it, Debbas is confident his still secret Land Rover Sedan will be better than his already impressive MU concept. Going on that evidence, I wouldn’t put it past him to succeed, and spectacularly at that.