Frank Rinderknecht: The motor trade's nutty professor

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With sensors that detect sleepy drivers and roofs that become blankets, Rinderknecht's cars could be from a Bond movie. He tells Josh Sims why big auto firms ought to follow his lead

You enter the garage and your car measures your pulse as you drive away, pumping out scented air if it thinks you're sleepy. Another switch transforms the four-seater into a pick-up truck. Another extends its length to become a saloon. Then a hydraulic system sees a hydrofoil slide out, allowing the vehicle to zip over water.

These innovations sound as if they're straight out of the workshop of James Bond's MI6 gadget whizz Q. But all of these automotive innovations have been designed and built, albeit in different cars, by Rinspeed. There is the Presto and the iChange – both extendable; the Bedouin – convertible to a pick-up, not to mention being the world's fastest natural gas-powered car; the Senso – with mood detection; the Advantige Rone – the first supercar to be powered by a biofuel made from kitchen waste; the Splash – with hydrofoil; the eXasis – its floor and body made from a transparent, high-tech plastic; and, among more recent designs, the sQuba. Borrowing more directly from The Spy Who Loved Me perhaps, this is, yes, the world's first fully submersible car.

Rinspeed is the work of Frank Rinderknecht, car industry visionary and founder, 30 years ago, of a company little known outside of the workshops it occupies in Zumikon, Switzerland. Except, that is, in the giant halls of the Geneva Motor Show, where this week Rinspeed's latest prototype has been pulling crowds of industry insiders looking for the next big ideas.

For all of the perceived outlandishness of some of these, Rinderknecht, after all, has a habit of coming up with many that the wider automobile world then picks up on several years later: matt paint, for example, first used by Rinspeed some seven years ago, is now seen regularly on British roads; he and his small team were first to devise driving monitoring systems of the kind now explored by the likes of Mercedes; and back in 1982, Rinderknecht invented the steering wheel with in-built controls, for phone-dialling and the like, now widespread. Most important of all, it was a decade ago when Rinspeed created arguably the industry's first eco-friendly vehicles, designed to run on refuse gases."It's true that some people think I'm nuts," says Rinderknecht, "but paper, Powerpoint, computers – they do whatever you tell them to do. "That's not the same as making something, to prove that the idea can be realised. What does that give you? A lot of headaches and grey hairs. But also a bit of reputation and a lot of fun. Most of the ideas we have come from the gut and a lot of them polarise opinion – but that's OK, we're more agent provocateurs, out to provoke new ways of thinking. But big car companies are not structured to allow emotions to lead. That corporate structure isn't flexible enough. The industry is hampered by its size, and the brands by their need to maintain an image."

Much of the 55-year-old's success lies in his readiness to dabble with technology and pursue it with relevant experts. The Senso's bio-metric interior, for example, was developed with the universities of Zurich and Innsbruck, using electro- luminescent film technology created by Bayer Material Science and Lumitec. The windscreen of another car has is made of polycarbonate, making it half the weight of conventional windscreens. The body of another is made from a plastic composite, which makes it rust-proof.

Success is also a product of his willingness to spend to make the ideas a reality – each car project costs upwards of €1m, and most are loss-making, possible only by the profitability of a Porsche auto-tuning and customisation business from which Rinspeed was born. While Rinderknecht concedes that he does not have to worry unduly about commercial pressures, he also leads through his ability to read social trends and predict the market. "The car industry has not been good at having a feeling for how people live and what people want," he says. "It's why, even when there was demand for electric vehicles, it still didn't want to have to think about green issues, such that now it's years behind the market."

For Rinderknecht that, for example, has meant responding to the pressures of inner-city congestion with cars that stretch or shrink according to need; of being realistic about the desire to drive fast by offering a car with a dual power plant, one for pottering in slow city traffic, another, less eco-friendly, used for motorways; even, simply, of the need for a car to be fun.

Rinspeed's latest electric, open-air model, the BamBoo, launching at the Geneva Motor Show this week, is what Rinderknecht calls a "lifestyle" car, designed for holiday spots. It is more than its retro styling suggests: this "grown-up golf-cart", as the company calls it, has a detachable blow-up canopy-like roof developed in partnership with Swiss company Tecnotex, which can double as a beach blanket, and removable rear seats, which fold down into cases. The dashboard is coated with a nano-tech material to protect it from morning dew, and, – most indicative of Rinderknecht's designing cars in response to social change – the car has full web connectivity.

In fact, the front radiator grill has been replaced by a screen, giving rise to what the designer hopes will be the start of a new form of automotive communication - "other than flipping the bird, maybe it will be encourage car-sharing too. You'll be able to check someone's Facebook page to ensure they're decent people and not prone to telling dirty jokes all the time before giving them a lift."

Indeed, for all that the BamBoo is, as Rinderknecht puts it, "a car that irritates", a love-it or hate-it proposition, it also represents a shift by Rinspeed to launching vehicles with greater sales potential. "When we build a car that dives, I know that it's not likely to put into production," he explains. "You have to be realistic about what has commercial potential and what doesn't – even if it's important for touching hearts, for being a provocative idea, about making it possible even if nobody really needs it. After all, it's easy to do a nice little sports-car, no. 742. But so what? But I would love to see more ideas becoming realties on the road – if only so we can make some money."

That may be about to happen. Contracts have been signed with an unnamed manufacturer for the 2012 production of Rinspeed's 2010 launch, the UC? (with the demanding question mark). The UC?'s big idea is to think even smaller. It is a ultra-compact, two-seater, electric commuter vehicle. The car is operated by a drive-by-wire system developed from handicap vehicle design and driven not using a steering wheel but new joystick technology. Most forward-looking of all, its size and shape is intended to make it part of an integrated approach to transport that would see such cars able to drive on to trains for inter-city journeys. That may take a leap of the imagination for the petrol-head, but it points to what Rinderknecht highlights as the biggest problem for the future of the car: our perception of what they say about us.

He points out, for example, how some 82 per cent of all journeys in Europe cover less than 40 miles. "And each of these is mostly by a man driving to work alone in a car with four seats, while his second car is a smaller one used by his partner, the children, the dog and the shopping," he says. "It makes no sense. So why does this happen? Because cars represent who we are. They are still as much a form of status as transport. We need a radical change to the way we think about mobility."

And no-one is thinking about it more than Rinderknecht.

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