Commuter Car Designed by Paul Hoste (© Paul Hoste)

Commuter car designed by Paul Hoste

As automotive design programs at colleges across North America are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, the students they attract are producing higher-level work than ever before. Each institute has its own superstars who are on the cutting edge of today's styles and technology. These designers are looking ahead to the distant and not-so-distant future, creating innovative mechanical masterpieces ranging from micro commuter cars to sleek and stylish pickup trucks to entire transportation systems that use podlike vehicles. Here are five student designs from some of the top automotive design programs around the country — designs that could very well be road-ready within the next decade.

Bing Images: Concept Cars

Click to enlarge pictureOne-person pod designed by Selim Benhabib and Taehoon Kim (© Pratt Institute)

One-person pod designed by Selim Benhabib and Taehoon Kim

Designers: Selim Benhabib and Taehoon Kim
School: Pratt Institute, New York
Selim Benhabib and Taehoon Kim — originally from Turkey and South Korea, respectively — envision a world in which transportation is both public and private at the same time. For their senior thesis project, the industrial-design majors teamed up to devise a new way to travel up and down New York's Hudson River Drive. "We wanted the traveler to have privacy, but also be part of a community," Benhabib says. To that end, their proposed system is made up of a series of autonomous one-person pods. Riders can pick-up or drop-off a pod at designated kiosks along the predetermined route on Manhattan's West Side, just as they would, say, use a subway station or bus stop. Operation of the vehicles is automated through an intuitive onboard computer, allowing passengers to travel leisurely.

Because they don't have to pay attention to the road, riders in the system can communicate with each other through a unique smartphone application-based social-networking system. "It lets you see who's 'on lane' and talk or video chat with them," Benhabib says. You'll also be able to strike up conversations with strangers around you by electronically "poking" them through the pod's computer system. Benhabib and Kim say the price of a ride would depend on the distance traveled and how much energy used. But they are hoping "it will cost somewhere between a subway ride and a taxi ride," Benhabib says.

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Click to enlarge pictureAcademy of Art University designs  (© Academy of Art University)

Academy of Art University designs

Designer: Michael Canty
School: Academy of Art University, San Francisco
At San Francisco's Academy of Art University, students in the transportation-design program focus all of their efforts on electric vehicles. While we think that is shortsighted, junior Michael Canty says being so specialized frees students from the constraints of the typical internal-combustion engine, especially its size and weight. "With electric cars, you don't have to worry about how much room the engine takes up, so you can get as much interior space in a microcar as you would in a larger sedan," Canty says.

His dream machine is a 6-foot-wide, 10-foot-long battery-powered microcar that can seat four people. To put that size in perspective: It's shorter than a MINI Cooper but longer than a smart fortwo. It is propelled by electric motors placed inside each wheel. In addition to regenerative braking, the car's batteries are also charged through kinetic energy. The vehicle's suspension system was inspired by Seiko's Kinetic Drive Technology, which is used in the company's current generation of watches. "This system provides sufficient energy to drive their watches with the flick of the wrist," Canty explains. "Similar technology can be utilized to convert physical suspension travel into electricity, which charges the vehicle's battery packs and extends its range. Hypothetically, as the vehicle goes further, the further it goes."

Despite the car's diminutive size, it's designed to be highly visible on the road. It has a high profile — a vertical design that puts passengers at the same height as a Jeep. Canty, a former aircraft-carrier jet mechanic and airplane captain in the Marine Corps, used what he calls a "layered defense" seating design so that passengers would each have the feeling of being in control. The lowest occupant is the driver, seated in the center front of the car, and each passenger behind him gets higher by four inches so they can all see over each other's heads.