Biomimicry Challenge drives innovation at L.A. Auto Show

It is noteworthy that this year's Auto Show 2013 in Los Angeles chose biomimicry as its 10th Design Challenge. Nine contestants vied for first-place honors in the "Biomimicry & Mobility 2025 -- Nature's Answer to Human Challenges" competition, and on Nov. 21, a winner was announced.

I was excited to see what the design shops of some of the best-known carmakers -- including BMW, Subaru and Toyota -- would produce when asked to create a sustainable vehicle of the future based on nature. And while I was a bit disappointed by the results, some designs were truly innovative.

Missed opportunities, interesting concepts

Why was I disappointed? While I have great respect for the effort, technical know-how and sophisticated graphic communication employed, I didn't see very many instances where a principle from nature was translated to an appropriate application.

To be sure, there were a lot of animal shapes that inspired designs, and some terms such as "symbiosis" used, but few of these showed a deep understanding the inspiring phenomena. Several entries, for example, tried to translate biological forms into completely different functional applications, and as a result were unconvincing. Then, of course, there were performance claims that simply could not be supported, including a vehicle design that claimed to be able to walk on water.

Many designs can be clever, but it's difficult to reach a level of biologically inspired innovation. That said, there were some bright spots at the show, with two designs from China making an impression.

SAIC Motor's ant-inspired one-seater

The first was submitted by SAIC Motor as the "Mobiliant," and represented the system-solution approach. The form of an ant inspired the one-seater vehicle, and the concept of mutualism, as exhibited by the ant and the trumpet tree, was behind the system's topology. The design clearly impressed the judges as well, as it ended up winning the competition.

The concept is clever: Vehicles would produce fertilizer as they drove, then return to tall towers where passengers would exit and the manufactured fertilizer would be disgorged. The passengers would go to their jobs and the fertilizer would go into the production of the biofuel that runs the cars.

The design calls for the vehicles to be equipped with super-traction wheels with internal Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) motors that allow them to climb up the sides of the towers and run in any orientation, including upside down. This ability was critical to innovation in the third part of the system: roadway infrastructure. All surfaces of interchanges -- top, bottom and sides -- were shrewdly designed to permit free flow of traffic without any crossing of vehicles, eliminating stops or yields.

The miracle traction in the wheels was enabled by "nano-layered cilia." Cilia are typically used for locomotion, as in bacteria, or transport and filtering, as in a windpipe. But in this case, it seems the designers were going for surface gripping.

There are other ways to make these cars stick to non-horizontal surfaces, including super magnets, or even something as antediluvian as road cables and grips. More challenging would be to allow the driver to arrive without feeling like a pina colada put inside a blender. In addition to driving upside-down to make that left turn at the intersection, the driver must be spun 180 degrees on the vertical axis of the car (and driver) in order to exit through the building portal.

As for the fertilizer production, that, too, seemed to have its technological limits. Inspired by the spiracles of exoskeletons, the car top would filter pollutants and an "enzyme driven transformer" would employ nitrogen-fixing bacteria to convert them into fertilizer. Many complaints could be made of this scheme, including the amount of surface area needed for collection and storage capacity.

What this design does demonstrate is a principle that we see in nature, mutualism, reduced to components simple enough to be replicated in our technological world. Along the way, the designers have come up with some smart ideas to make the system components potentially work in a completely new way. 

Changfeng Motor Corporation's shape-shifting vehicle

The second standout, from the Changfeng Motor Corporation, was called the "La Brea -- Los Angeles Bio Research Project," and was of the single-vehicle, road-only type. This design floated to the top in my estimation because of the novelty of its approach, and because, like nature, the designers tried to accomplish two very different functions using the same material. Moreover, that material was organic in form, rather than a collection of the standard mechanical parts.

Still, the concept was a bit of a reach. The designers described a "closed loop and semi-rigid torsion reed network to distribute and manage maneuvering capabilities." The concept involves a bundle of cross-laid tubes that create both the body of the car and the steering mechanism. A flexible nature allows the car to change shape -- although, unlike another entry, this shape change does not make the car significantly shorter for parking.

Many practical considerations were unclear to me: How does the car open up for passengers without interrupting the hydraulics? How is the hydraulic power transferred to the wheels? And how is propulsion created and maintained? It does, however, represent a true jump in what it means to be a car, not just in the body, but in its working systems.

While these two entries were particularly interesting from a bio-inspired perspective, all the designs had something to impart about the future of nature-inspired design. That future is definitely worth getting excited about.

Opening image of Mobiliant via SAIC