Chris Reitz has left his role at a major manufacturer to help develop a hydrogen fuel-cell car.

Everybody who works for a big company has probably had the same inconvenient thought at one time or another. That nagging suspicion the grass might be greener on the other side of the fence marking the boundaries of corporate life. That a more interesting, more socially useful existence might be possible if only one could break free. Very few of us act upon such feelings, but the Austrian-born car designer Chris Reitz did. Last year, he left a long career in senior positions with three of the world's biggest automotive groups – Volkswagen, Nissan and Fiat – to join Riversimple, a small UK-based operation that is developing one of the world's first hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

"You see the problems of working in a big company and you get frustrated by the systems," he explains. It would be putting it too strongly to say that Reitz was fed up in his previous job, leading the design function for Fiat's Alfa Romeo brand, but he eventually realised the "big limitation" of heading a design team. "You think you can change things, but you cannot," he says.

Reitz grew up in Munich. He was "always fascinated by anything to do with mobility and four wheels" and studied at the Swiss branch of Art Center College of Design, which has produced many of the motor industry's leading designers in Europe and the US. He joined Volkswagen in the early Nineties to work on concept cars before transferring to Audi, where he was involved with the A2. After becoming head of advanced design, he was approached to lead Nissan's European design studio, where he helped develop the Mk III Micra as well as contributing to the early stages of the Qashqai. Lastly, he went to Fiat, where he became design director first for Fiat-branded cars and later for Alfa Romeo.

Most of today's cars are the result of collaboration, rather than bearing the authoritative stamp of a single designer, but Reitz was a part of the Fiat 500 team and fittingly, in the light of his later role with Riversimple, a number of eco-oriented models. As well as the Audi A2, he had a hand in the "3-litre" fuel saving version of the Volkswagen Lupo, and developed an early interest in exotic – at least in everyday car-making – materials, such as magnesium.

Reitz was already familiar with and interested in Riversimple thanks to his connections with the Piëch family – a branch of the Porsche dynasty, some of whom were principal investors in the project. Even while he was at Alfa Romeo, he would often ponder the question of what a small hydrogen fuel-cell car might look like and how it could be built. There are substantial challenges in designing such a vehicle, which appears to have been one of the factors that drew Reitz towards the project.

The Riversimple car will be very different in mechanical terms to those we drive today. That means the main components will be packaged differently too, opening up completely new possibilities for rearranging the space within the vehicle for passengers and their luggage. Just one example is the wheels, which will contain the car's motors, freeing up space usually taken up by a combustion engine. As Reitz says: "We need to think about more than making nice shapes."

Those exotic materials will be important, too. Reitz explains that sustainability and recyclability are vital to the Riversimple concept. One consequence is that any carbon fibre used will have to have an unpainted finish. This appeals to Reitz on aesthetic grounds as well. When he was involved in the design of the Alfa Romeo 8c, he was frustrated that this exceptional material was hidden under the paintwork, rather than being shown off in uncoated form.

The design of the car will be influenced by another aspect of the Riversimple philosophy as well. Rather than selling cars to customers, the company will be providing mobility as a service under a form of leasing arrangement, which means that the priorities are completely different. Established motor industry practice involves convincing drivers to replace perfectly serviceable vehicles with something more exciting every few years. A Riversimple car, which may have several "owners", needs to be more durable. As Reitz says: "The longer the car is on the street, the more money we make."

And as if all that weren't enough, Reitz has to keep an eye on issues such as the tooling costs as well. Riversimple's vision involves distributed production at several sites close to the customers, rather than in big plants favoured by the mainstream industry. Riversimple's car will also be an "open source" design. Initially, the company will produce a model with full European type approval, but partners from other parts of the world may take responsibility for adapting the basic design to local conditions and regulations. By adopting this collaborative approach, Riversimple will be able to spread its technology more easily and tap expertise from far beyond its payroll.

So what will Reitz's first Riversimple car look like? An early concept for the vehicle, designed before Reitz formally joined the company, has already been displayed at London's Science Museum. It probably doesn't provide too many clues to the eventual production model, although they can perhaps be expected to be similar in terms of size and broad proportions – a two-seater Smart ForTwo is probably the closest comparison among established cars. However, it does provide basic proof of the manufacturing process, the materials and the power-train. At least for the time being, Riversimple is likely to concentrate on small urban runabouts, because the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure – another area in which the company is busy investigating new business models and partners – is initially likely to be densest in urban districts.

Can the Riversimple project succeed? A trial planned for the streets of Leicester in 2012 will provide the first clues. There's a lot riding on Reitz's work.

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