News: supercar brand McLaren is exploring ways of developing shape-shifting "transformer" vehicles that morph from self-driving city cars to low-slung racers in the countryside, according to chief designer Robert Melville.
Speaking to Dezeen at McLaren's headquarters near Woking, England, Melville said his design studio was anticipating a future where cars are legally obliged to operate autonomously in urban areas.
"If we can have a car that can truly change its character from the city to the country road to the track, McLaren will still be relevant in the future, if cars become autonomous and if that starts becoming a law," Melville said.
All the major car manufacturers are experimenting with driverless technology while governments around the world are starting to update legislation to allow autonomous vehicles onto the roads. UK transport minister Claire Perry this week announced that "driverless cars are the future" and said new laws would mean self-driving cars could be on the roads within months.
However, McLaren is exploring how high-performance sports cars could physically change shape in response as they switch from autonomous to driver modes.
"Maybe you're autonomous in the city and as you come out into the countryside the car changes," Melville said. "But the McLaren is not just changing its software setting; it's changing its geometry and its functionality."
Performance car brands are already experimenting with shape-shifting vehicles. In 2006 BMW unveiled its GINA Light Visionary Model, a concept car featuring a fabric skin stretched over an articulated substructure, while McLaren's P1 hybrid supercar features a "track mode" where the body drops 50mm closer to the road and a rear wing pops up to create additional downforce.
"'Transformer' is actually a key word that we use in the studio," said Melville, 37. "I think we've already shown that on the P1."
Last month Melville was promoted to chief designer at McLaren Automotive, the performance-car wing of McLaren Technology Group. The group also includes the McLaren Formula 1 team and McLaren Applied Technologies, which commercialises technologies developed for the race track including software and lightweight materials such as the pioneering carbon fibre monocoque chassis developed for Formula 1.
McLaren hand-builds 1,680 supercars per year at its Foster & Partners-designed production centre in Surrey in southern England. Its range includes the new limited-edition 650S coupe, which is based on the car that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1995.
Read the full interview with Melville on Dezeen tomorrow.