The concept car represents a perspective on where the supermini or B-segment market should go in our uncertain economic times. This step change in automotive design is the result of a collaboration between Toyota European Design & Development (ED2), based in the south of France, and French designer and architect Jean-Marie Massaud, internationally acclaimed for visionary projects such as the ‘Manned Cloud’ flying-hotel concept and the Chivas Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Toyota specifically wanted to work with Massaud on this project due to his philosophy on design, which revolves around the idea of creating harmony between the often conflicting challenges of human, economic and environmental issues. Massaud describes his work as being at the crossroads between anthropology, engineering and poetry.

Toyota also liked the idea of working with someone outside of the automotive industry that could bring fresh thinking and new solutions to the project. “ED2 wanted to create a project totally free of the usual constraints of automotive industry. That’s why we asked an independent designer who does not usually work within the automotive industry to pull forward new ideas about the design of a car, in terms of material use as well in terms of architecture and design,” says Laurent Bouzige, assistant chief designer at ED2.

Massaud was given total freedom to express his vision for the concept, but being his first time working on a car design, he was aware of the challenge ahead. “For me, the car is symbolic and a major challenge of an age in which there is a plethora of things in which everything is opulence. We realise that we are living outside of our real needs,” he explains.

As he’s interested in the symbiotic relationships between humans and the world around us, he wanted to create an everyday car that would enable users to live symbiotically with the world. He wasn’t interested in creating a futuristic or luxurious vision but rather a realistic solution that wasn’t about the user’s ego or status. He wanted to show what was possible today using the technology and materials that are currently available.

“By losing sight of reality and as a result of an idealised approach, the car has become an accumulation of constraints more than a source of freedom. However, our lives and needs require more adaptability, simplicity and lightness. The car of today should be seen as a personal mobility solution that can deliver more,” explains Massaud.

Having created a partnership agreement with Studio Massaud in July 2011, Massaud’s collaboration with the design team at ED2 kicked off soon after. As Bouzige explains, the design process began with a lot of discussion and brainstorming.

“With Studio Massaud, ED2 gained insights and opinions into the future of the automobile from the perspective of a non-automotive design studio. This kind of ‘cross pollination’ and fresh perspectives are an important part of the creative process as we seek out new solutions for better vehicles,” he comments.

Together they then came up with a shared ambition that revolved around three primary aims:

1  Pertinence – their vision for the car is passionate but considered. The concept should be adaptable to a wide variety of lifestyles as well as displaying high quality and innovation. So, an all-in-one car that could be a pick-up, convertible, off-roader and small city car.

2 Synthesis – a move away from the motor industry tradition to remove excess and suggest a new way of responding to people’s behaviour and expectations. The concept should propose an alternative synthesis based on personal choices about vehicle architecture, lower running costs and the way the vehicle will be used.

3 Modernity – challenge conventions and seek change in designing a car that goes beyond just looking good through the experience it offers, its intelligent solutions and its ability to exceed the needs of the owner. This should be a car that reflects the values of forward-thinking people rather than simply their social status.

These aims were also depicted in the name they chose for the concept, which reflects a simultaneous concern for personal well being (Me) and the well being of others (We).

One of the most innovative ideas Massaud brought to the project was his choice of materials – bamboo for the roof and interior floor and expanded polypropylene (EPP) as the car panels – doors, wings, bonnet, bumpers, etc. This thermoplastic polymer is not only a lightweight and recyclable material but also extremely robust and resilient.

“Today EPP is present in cars but it’s hidden,” explains Bouzige. “We decided to show the EPP in an elegant way that allows us to significantly lighten the weight of the car. As you may know, polypropylene and aluminium are already used in the automotive industry and their usage could be increased in coming decades. For instance, bamboo is already used as inserts in the interior of Lexus cars. But we wanted to expose these materials and show them in an honest way.”

These polypropylene panels also offer endless pos-sibilities for customisation. “You could have a car for every season. This would be possible with this material – it’s cheap and allows us to have a huge range of possibilities for colour and trim,” says Bouzige.

However, these interchangeable body panels resulted in a completely different vehicle architecture. The Toyota design team had to create an aluminium structure that could be clad in these body panels. “We could not draw the car in a traditional way because the surfaces of the panels would be multiples. So we designed an exoskeleton that would be our aluminium structure on which we set our EPP panels. Then we developed a volume that concentrated more on masses and beautiful proportions than surface definition,” comments Bouzige.

During the design process, Massaud worked very closely with the ED2 team, with weekly meetings as well as emails and phone calls. When Massaud was working within ED2’s 6000-square-metre facility, which features digital milling machines, clay modelling areas and CAD workstations, he was exposed to a design process that was very new to him.

“We go through a process of physical modelling in clay, associated with 3D tools for milling, conception and realisation,” explains Bouzige. “We also use a lot of real-time rendering software, and some powerful 3D parametric software. Fast prototyping tools including stereolithography (STL) are also really useful. This whole 3D process really helps us to conceive the car in its entirety.”

It was fairly obvious from the start that this car would be an electric vehicle but the innovation here comes from the Toyota iRoad where the electric motors are integrated into each of the four wheels. This means that the Toyota Me.We can be a two or four-wheel-drive vehicle with the inherent capability of coping effectively with a range of different terrains.

With the batteries for the electric motors located under the floor, this means that the interior can be much bigger. The interior is pared back but elegant with the bamboo floor wrapping itself all the way around the interior with minimal bench seating. As the passengers always take priority over luggage, the luggage can be carried on the roof protected in a neoprene cover.

Other features include: the extension of the rear luggage space that can be transformed into a platform like that of a pickup; mounted on rails in the floor, the rear bench-seat can be folded and stored under the front seat; and the removable bench seating system can also be used for a picnic on the grass or sand.

Of course, sustainability was a major consideration during the process, not least of all because it is now expected from users. “We have to live up to the expectations of many users, and so we have a major role to play in the improvement of our life on earth through sustainable design,” says Bouzige.

One way Toyota has limited its environmental footprint on this concept was by making the concept extremely lightweight. The final calculated weight of the Me.We would be only 750 kilograms. According to Toyota, this represents a minimum of 20 per cent saving compared to a traditional B-segment car with a steel body. This is mainly due to the difference in mass between body panels made of polypropylene, which weigh only 14 kg each, and those made in steel.

In addition, the heating and air-conditioning system uses a low consumption heat air pump, which, coupled with electric seat heaters, minimises energy consumption. As Massaud says, Me.We delivers an intelligent response to the ecological threats posed by mass production and the growth of the global car fleet.

When the Toyota Me.We launched, it caught the imagination of many, not just because it’s a reinvention of the car but rather a vehicle for everyone that is simpler, more appropriate and realistic. “We are currently gathering all press and public feedback, and we will analyse them carefully in order to draw conclusions that may lead to the continuation of a similar project in mind,” concludes Bouzige.

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