The Renault Symbioz isn't just a concept car
...it's a house too. It's Renault's vision of a fully electric, autonomous super-future
Une maison est une machine-à-habiter. French-Swiss designer/architect/artist Le Corbusier issued his famous statement in 1923, and his ‘a house is a machine for living in’ dictum later manifested itself in his magnificent home, Villa Savoiye. That was completed in 1929, and famously the lower section was designed to accommodate the turning circle of his car.
Renault’s latest concept, the Symbioz, takes the idea and runs with it into a fully electric, autonomous, and seamlessly connected shiny super-future. This isn’t just a concept car: this is also a concept house. Renault has also taken the bold step of constructing the entire thing on its stand at the Frankfurt motor show – kitchen, living room, bedroom and all. “We’re exploring the future of mobility by focusing on a human-centred ecosystem,” Renault Group’s head of autonomous tech Laurent Taupin tells TG in a special preview. “We’re expecting the car to be a genuine member of this ecosystem, to be fully integrated into it. Autonomous cars will bring a whole new set of rules into play. There will be recovered time, shared space, and energy will be recycled.”
Renault, of course, was the first big OEM to vigorously nail its colours to the EV mast, and the French giant is also working full-tilt to position itself ahead of the self-driving curve. With its transparent Plexiglass canopy, extreme proportions, and fully configurable interior, the Symbioz isn’t just channelling the spirit of Le Corbusier, there are echoes of early 1970s concept car eye candy here, too.
Says Renault’s vice president for design, Laurens van den Acker: “When Stephane [Janin, advanced design boss] showed me a sketch, I said, ‘if we’re doing it, we’re doing the car and the house.’ My philosophy is that if no-one steps in to say no, then that means yes. Besides, I’ve seen various architects do cars over the years, so I figured we could return the favour. The idea of the car travelling through the house is what sold it to me. Then I wanted to challenge the idea of hiding the car away in the garage. We have these beautiful objects, so why do we stick them in a gloomy cave? I don’t think we valorise the car enough.” Clearly, there’s a whole lot more going on here than ‘just’ a connected car.
TG visited Renault’s vast TechnoCentre, near Versailles, where we checked out a Talisman mule dubbed ‘Mad Max’ – “because it looked improvised, like the cars in the first film,” Laurent Taupin says – packed to the gun-whales with the autonomous tech needed to vault Renault to level 5 autonomy (here’s how it plays out: feet off/hands off/eyes off/mind off/full autonomy). Renault is also working with partners like Sanef on developing the necessary highway infrastructure, IAV on autonomy, TomTom on both future- and bullet-proofing the navigation sophistication cars will need to make decisions by themselves without, er, ‘interfacing’ with Armco, and Ubisoft on the frankly Philip K. Dick-meets-Dr. Timothy Leary-style idea of transforming the interior experience into a ‘trip’. “Let’s take the occupants to a different universe,” Ubisoft’s Debra Papiernik tells TG. “The road outside might be a little bit boring.”
Taupin insists that Renault remains fully committed to the increasingly beleaguered concept of driving pleasure. “Our prototype hauls ass, let me tell you,” he says convincingly. “There’s 500kW electric motor, and the architecture allows for a lower centre of gravity. If it gets boring out there, you don’t have to drive. If you want to, you can. Have I spoken to the RenaultSport guys? Yes, and we are still friends…”
As to the Symbioz itself, well the raised ‘spars’ above the rear wheel-arches could theoretically contain all the sensors, radar, and other gubbins automotive AI will require (should designers hide this stuff away, or make a feature of it?), the fin is a nod to the current Renault F1 car, and inside the whole thing can become a mobile living area, contained within the car’s 3m-long wheelbase. Different versions of this show car actually exist, but the main display we get to play with is an OLED set-up – co-developed with LG – of head-spinning resolution and capability.
And la maison? Renault pitched a few architects against each other, and the result incorporates a huge cylinder, sprinkled with 5700 separate LEDs, a modernist living space, and a lift suspended on four industrial wires that can elevate the Symbioz to the first floor, when it can drive onto the roof and effectively become an additional living room. Or possibly a man cave (or indeed woman cave, or whatever the equivalent is). Most of the materials used in the car reappear in the house, and the building remains in standby mode until the car approaches. The two spaces are, yep, symbiotic.
“The notion of the car as an isolated object is disappearing,” van den Acker insists. “The Symbioz is asking big questions about how our cars will interact with everything else in our world.”