The auto industry's flooded with ideas right now about how to advance the goal of producing self-driving cars, but no concept as of late comes close to what Rinspeed produced in a new vehicle the Swiss automaker calls Snap - a roving, autonomous pod-like thing that's gorgeously designed and immensely weird, and I love it.
Rinspeed has a penchant for doling out interesting ideas, but Snap elevates the vision of what you can do to the interior of a car, once driving functions are removed. Snap's not so much a car; it's like a comfortable pod that's snapped onto a skateboard of sorts. It was by far the thing I was most excited to see at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
When it's not moving, the pod can be separated from the skateboard, allowing it to become whatever you want, CEO Frank Rinderknecht told Jalopnik at CES
"By separating, so to speak, the body from the base — we call it the skateboard, which contains all batteries, powertrain, I.T., which runs around like mad, day at night - we will share it," Rinderknecht said in an interview inside the Snap. He went on, "You could be in the office like here for people, it could be camping, it could be delivery."
Toyota debuted a similar idea at CES, but there's something about Snap that felt more genuine. Rinderknecht said he wanted to provoke conversations with the concept; Toyota's mobile pod just sparked questions above all else. If you asked me, I'd say Rinderknecht succeeded.
"I was missing out of the box things," he said. "It's all like incremental changes evolutions but there's no revolution."
The company joined a showcase at CES hosted by Harman, whom I initially dealt with for a possible interview. Upon arrival, I learned Rinspeed and Harman had two separate contacts, and that Harman intended to show me the entire showcase. I wasn't terribly interested, to be honest; I wanted to see the Snap!
Lucky for me, Rinspeed apparently wants to be as accommodating as possible. When I asked a spokesperson if someone was available for an interview, moments later, I was introduced to Rinderknecht, who happily obliged.
Rinspeed CEO Frank Rinderknecht Photo: AP
What's there to say about the space itself? As it stands, four could sit comfortably, and maybe two could lay down at both ends. There's enough room to stretch out like you're at home, and everyone has a screen. Everyone.
There's a personalised screen for each person in the Snap, and a bigger screen rolls out from the top and into the center, allowing everyone to watch a movie if they please.
"This means that each one has his personal computer personal screen when you want to work when you want to be private," Rinderknecht said. "Or you watch together a movie or play a game. So you have the big screen to come down. Anything."
At first blush, that image is a bit jarring. But the ethos of Rinspeed, as Rinderknecht put it to me, was to Think Big. We're talking about a vehicle that doesn't require a driver, and Snap manages to pack all of this stuff into a frame the size of a Mercedes C-Class, Rinderknecht says.
With a conference that tends to think forward about the future of technology, why not go big?
"Personally I'm a little bit disappointed when you see like new vehicles like Byton yesterday," Rinderknecht said. "They looked like an SUV, like whatever else you see on the streets today. Of course they have a big screen, and they talk about it."
Rinderknecht couldn't pick something of the car that he enjoyed the most, other than some small plants situated near both sets of passenger seats.
It struck me as an appropriate choice for him. Amid the chaotic frenzy of Silicon Valley companies and traditional automakers jockeying to position themselves as the forerunner for autonomous driving, Rinderknecht struck a more humble, far more honest approach. He doesn't believe folks in rural Midwest or the deep South are going to ditch their human-driven cars for autonomous vehicles, but in urban cores, it's ideas like Snap that could catch on, he said.
The vehicle would even come with a personal robot assistant to help passengers with basic tasks. Admittedly, I had to keep peering over at the robot during our conversation. It felt odd to be up close to a non-human and (in theory) highly intelligent being that could assist me with daily tasks. The future felt super real to sit next to it.
Rinderknecht seemed to sense the hesitation in my voice when I asked about it.
"We want to start to associate ... with robotics, because we are a generation of transition," he said. "Our grandchildren, they know they will grow up with the robot nannies and everything else. It's just a way to show where the industry is heading."
Surprisingly, when I asked him, Rinderknecht says that Rinspeed might produce as many as 100 Snaps for tier 1 suppliers looking for a test vehicle or universities. Maybe we could see this sort of thing around sooner rather than later? Whatever the case, Rinderknecht's just happy to drum up the interest.
"I don't expect that everybody agrees and claps my shoulder," he said. "But I expect or I hope the people are talking about it. And then I already am a winner."