Daimler has revealed its Smart Vision EQ ForTwo concept in Stuttgart, two weeks before it gets shown to the public at the Frankfurt Auto Show.
The concept — which the company stresses is not designed to preview the exterior styling of the next Smart ForTwo — presents a radically changed, much more digital future for the brand. The concept explores the future of shared city mobility, along with electrified and autonomous cars. All the buzz words then.
Beyond this connected, sharing, driving-itself future, Smart's vision (sorry) is that the future ForTwo stays true to the ultra-compact dimensions of today's Smart — the concept is exactly the same length, at 2.69m — and it's still strictly two-seater. However, two seats are actually now a single sofa-style unit.
But the big news is that the Vision EQ ForTwo goes full-on 'Google Car' and throws out the steering wheel and pedals. In case it needs spelling out, this is a full, Level 5 autonomous concept.
Smart Vision EQ ForTwo review: A concept for 2030
The Vision might not show us what Smart's immediate design future is, but it does tell us some candid truths about how its parent Daimler sees the brand.
In truth, Smart has never done the business as a stand-alone brand. The city car niche is just that — a little too niche — and the vehicles haven't ever succeeded in global markets like North America. The current cars are built on a shared platform with the Renault Twingo.
Yet in the future, this city-centric image and diminutive size will give the brand an advantage, says Daimler. So you need to look at Vision EQ ForTwo, as Smart bringing together several bits of the Daimler's 'mobility' world in one vehicle — and presenting us with how we might get around in 2030.
It takes learning from the firm's current 'Car2go' car share service, because in the city of the future the company reckons that autonomous cars will mean it doesn't make a lot of financial sense to own a car, so people will just use one when they need one (a soft-reality in the here and now with BMW DriveNow, for example).
And when cars are fully autonomous, you'll be able to just summon one via your phone, to wherever you happen to be — a vision that Elon Musk has previously described for Teslas in a not too distant future. Which means it's bound to come true. They'll be clever too, these Vision EQs — with swarm intelligence predicting where demand will be, ensuring you're never left standing in the rain for too long, waiting for a car to show up.
Smart Vision EQ ForTwo review: Summon your 44-inch screen on wheels
Having gotten rid of the steering wheel and pedals, the fact that the front grille gets replaced by a giant 44-inch screen display, seems like small beer. But it's not, it's actually a rather big deal.
Electric cars don't need a radiator grille and Smart's design and R&D teams have been conducting extensive research on the little problems that autonomous cars are likely to throw up. Things like how you know the car that's arriving is actually for you (there'll be no Uber driver to ask, like today); or how pedestrians will know the car is stopping to let them across the road.
So the 44-inch screen plays a number of roles, displaying your name as it arrives, saying hello, telling other people outside the car of its destination, and even throwing out a beamed pedestrian crossing and inviting the walker to cross in front of it via a scrolling display. And it has digital headlamps which wink, and follow you as you walk in front of it.
Smart says this is all part of the friendly approach, stressing that the autonomous city car of the future need not be scary and aggressive. Which we applaud… except that the Smart's face is hardly a smiling visage and those headlight eyes' are slightly creepy when they're following you.
Smart Vision EQ ForTwo review: Watch a movie or the city go by
Still, it seems fairly committed to this friendly, 'giving something back' thinking, so the door/windows — which are giant, circular transparencies which roll up and back to let you in and out — aren't just windows, but also act as projection surfaces. When the car's not in use, they display adverts, weather info and football match scores. You can make them opaque if you fancy some privacy when aboard.
You won't own the Smart then, or drive it. So just what will you do while you're getting about the city in it? Probably watching a movie or looking at your smartphone photos of course. It's here that the Vision EQ seems pretty similar to every autonomous concept we've seen so far — using a giant, cross-car screen across where the dash and steering wheel is in a normal car. Well, today's 'normal'.
This screen isn't a touchscreen — instead it's a surface you hand things onto from your phone, or can interact with via your phone. The design team's thinking was that you'll have your phone out to summon the car anyway, so it seems dumb to make you then put it away and force interaction through a car-based display. We wonder if charging will be wireless without physical contact by that point in time, meaning electronics aboard are also charged while on-the-go (just a thought!).
With just two seats in the Vision EQ, you aren't going to be brining all the family along though. So it seems a safe bet the Smart is aimed at young, urban hipsters — the sort of people who might be open to sharing the ride with another passenger, earning tokens towards the next one.
The car handles this shared ride opportunity, telling you that there's someone you can pick up on your route, and matching them with you via your shared interests. Still, you might not want them to come too close when they get on board, so a handy arm-rest rises out of the sofa, to neatly form a divider and defining two distinct seating areas. Otherwise that sofa-style seat might seem like a really bad idea.
Smart Vision EQ ForTwo review: Teddy bear's picnic
But what's the teddy bear about we hear you ask?
Well, according to Smart it was designed to show off some new and novel approaches to storage — see how it's strapped in? The designers drew a Teddy as an example of something you could safely keep from rolling around aboard, and then management fell in love with it, so teddy made it through to the final design.
We'll let you be the judge of whether there's a deeper message someone's trying to convey, because as presented it looks rather like the Smart has kidnapped the poor soft toy!
When you're done with it (hopefully remembering to take your stuff, or, um, teddy with you) the car will reposition itself to meet the next customer.
Connectivity and smart services mean that the car will know it needs cleaning, or recharging.
Smart Vision EQ ForTwo review: Daimler takes the fight to Waymo
To signify its electric drivetrain, the Vision concept gets the EQ sub-branding that was first seen on the Mercedes Concept EQ SUV — shown in Paris last autumn.
EQ will be a sub-brand used across both Mercedes and Smart brands, signifying electrified mobility. Smart isn't quoting a range for the electric battery because, well it's a concept for a start. But perhaps more pertinently because in the future it envisions, range and recharging concerns should never become an issue the end user has to worry about — the Vision EQ ForTwo would charge itself at points when it wasn't in public use. Or there may be auto-charging public roads in some areas by then.
It's easy to question some of this thinking and the practicalities of how all this might work. So Smart put on a series of tech-based workshops around the unveil, to discuss how it was approaching the future, and there's some really deep — and if you'll forgive the obvious pun — smart thinking that's gone into this concept.
The reality is that the technology is pretty much here to do these things now. AI and machine learning will improve things exponentially as more of these types of vehicles appear on our roads. So it's the city side of things — infrastructure — and our own personal ingrained mind-sets that are the hurdles that need to be overcome. That and money for things to move forward, no doubt.
As it is, Smart seems to have answer to most potential issues — even the idea that in a shared car you might want to sanitise your hands on the way in and out (the rose gold unit on the seat edge squirts antibac spray if you place your hand under it.)
Moreover, the concept shows that Smart's parent company, Daimler, intends to take on the Googles and Ubers of the world and stay relevant in an autonomous, on-demand future. A world where some believe the car will be reduced to a commodity product.
The Vision EQ ForTwo, and Daimler's wider research approach, suggests that won't happen — as this car brand embraces its more human, collaborative and data-driven side to stay relevant and desired.
Which is all good, but the burning question, really, Smart is will you just let the poor teddy bear go?