Computer graphics enable high-octane experience


McLaren mulling 3D holographic displays for faster designing of supercars

By Kim Tong-hyung

McLaren, the Formula One racing group that is attempting to flex its muscles in road cars, vows to build machines that will leave the likes of Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin in the dust.

And this requires the company to move faster than its rivals to adopt the latest advancements in computer graphics technology for designing its supercars, according to its design director Frank Stephenson.

In a recent interview with The Korea Times, Stephenson said that early next year McLaren will become the first carmaker to fully integrate three dimensional (3D) holographic displays in the design process, converting yet another sci-fi dream into reality.

The stereoscopic images used in McLaren’s labs will be beamed mid-air and viewed from 360 degrees, without forcing software users to wear any clunky glasses. A motion detection system will allow McLaren designers to interact with the 3D holograms and make adjustments, Stephenson said, and the images can be shared through computer networks to enable collaboration between different studios.

``The use of high-quality visual animation and the digitized designing process is based on the needs to improve the speed of product delivery and be more cost effective in the process before we produce the physical product. Conventional methods will leave you with conventional timing schedules, and we will always have to work to find the best processes to accelerate our product strategy plans, improve efficiency and employ cutting-edge technologies,’’ Stephenson said.

``I think we are going to avoid the stage of unmoving 3D graphics that repeat the 2D experience with the same holographic technologies. What we want is a 3D projection that provides a solid appearance where you can walk around it and influence it, and this would really represent a breakthrough in design technology.’’

Stephenson was in Seoul for the Dec. 15-18 Siggraph Asia convention, the regional edition of the world’s largest annual computer graphics exhibition organized by the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) of the United States. A rare automotives expert in a sea of games, movies and software industry people, Stephenson said it was crucial for McLaren to use events such as Siggraph to see what kind of media and technologies are available to improve its design process.

Built for speed

Stephenson, who took over as McLaren’s design chief in 2008, is one of the world’s most high-profile car designers, best known for his work on the design of the modern day Mini when BMW revived the series in 2001. Spending 11 years at BMW and shorter stints at Ferrari and Fiat, Stephenson was also responsible for the designs of the BMW X5, the revived Fiat 500, and Ferrari’s F430 and 612 Scaglietti.

Stephenson is shouldering heavy expectations at McLaren, which formerly launched its road car division in March and looks to expand its automotive range as it gears up to become a mainstream sports car maker. Success in road cars is critical for the company based in Woking, Britain, which believes a sustainable future will depend on its ability to expand the business outside racing.

McLaren’s automotive division recently completed the development of its first road car, the MP4-12C, which was already underway when Stephenson joined the company, although he was responsible for fine-tuning the design.

Among the future models planned at McLaren is an all-new version of the F1 car, a limited-edition vehicle the company produced between 1994 and 1998, which was for a time the fastest production car ever made. Stephenson says he is also working on a more affordable coupe to throw into the Porsche 911 segment mix.

``We are building two new cars to add to our range. The first one will be a hyper car aimed for the extreme high segment, and the only obligation for us is to design the best car in the world, both in performance and efficiency. The other one is an entry-level McLaren positioned toward the 911 segment, which will probably be our volume car, and this car will be providing a quality that no competitors are offering at this level,’’ Stephenson said.

``The replacement of the F1 hyper car, which is the flagship McLaren car, is a super-exciting project. This was the uber car of the 1990s and we have some huge shoes to fill. There are no restrictions on us for the F1 replacement _ we are enjoying the freedom to create a car that is entirely different, designed for purpose, designed to look like something and designed for pure efficiency.’’

Aside from the one-off F1 vehicle and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren line of sports cars, which were produced under a partnership with the German carmaker that expired last year, McLaren’s experience in street cars is rather limited.

However, Stephenson believes McLaren is well-positioned to overcome its late start through creative input, with the cohesion between its automotives and racing divisions providing the company a distinctive technological edge in building faster, safer and more efficient cars.

``My move to Ferrari really opened my eyes on the importance of a technology transfer from the racing side to the automotive side, but there still wasn’t a 100 percent transfer of technologies there simply because of the way the company was structured,’’ Stephenson said.

``Integrating Formula One technology into street cars is a real possibility at McLaren, as we are able to have direct interaction with the racing team. Our racing team obviously has a group of highly-qualified engineers and their type of thinking is quite different to their peers in automotive engineering _ they are always looking for the next exciting innovations, but not much else. On the automotive side, it’s more about being `street legal,’ lowering the level of risk and delivering high levels of quality, and combining both of these strengths could really give McLaren an advantage.’’

Purpose-driven design

The MP4-12C represents McLaren’s first street car developed without crucial components supplied by outside manufacturers, unlike the F1s and SLRs, which relied on engines from Mercedes and BMW, respectively.

At the heart of the MP4-12C beats a turbocharged 592-horsepower V-8 engine, which will be produced entirely in Woking, and this, combined with its lightweight carbon fiber design, allows the car to put up some serious performance numbers. According to McLaren’s press releases, the MP4-12C can get from zero to 200 kilometer per hour in under 10 seconds and then back to zero again in five seconds.

The cars will be available at some of McLaren’s 35 dealerships worldwide early next year, Stephenson said, and the company is in a process of forming an agreement with a South Korean dealership.

Stephenson would define a great car as something timeless, designed to look stunning now but also to be relevant years later. This requires every aspect of the car’s design _ the lines, surfaces, materials and other details _ to have a functional purpose rather than just being styled.

The MP4-12C matches this principle right to its name, Stephenson said. ``MP4,’’ which stands for McLaren Project 4, has been the chassis designation for all McLaren Formula One cars since 1981, while ``12’’ refers to McLaren’s internal vehicle performance index for power and efficiency, which it uses to rate the performance of its cars and those of its competitors. The ``C’’ refers to carbon, representing the carbon fiber technology, which is planned to be adapted to McLaren’s future range of sports cars.

``Things that are extremely efficient automatically look cool. The moment you overdesign a car, so it’s not natural and falsely represent its purpose, you lose the chance of delivering something real,’’ Stephenson said.

``In defining a great car, we see it being a car that uses the world’s resources to a minimum and finds a way to use air and all those compromising, negative things to an advantage. In nature, the animals and organisms that perform best are designed for purpose, for pure function, and this is what I want to do with cars, which should have no excess anything.

``This requires high-quality materials and engineering, which are areas where we benefit from our Formula One department, and also advanced electronic technologies and knowledge in aerodynamics. This is not a race for horsepower or top speed, but how much efficiency you can get from the least amount of energy.’’

This pursuit of ``100 percent efficiency,’’ as Stephenson put it, also explains why he’s dismissive of BMW’s decision to bulk up the Mini after he left the company.

``I don’t like them,’’ Stephenson said, referring to BMW’s second-generation Minis.

``When we first designed the Mini, we had to account for the fact that people have become bigger and also the strengthened safety regulations, but that still was the smallest package we could achieve while still getting a five star safety rating. I don’t think cars should become larger, but they should become smaller and more efficient.

``The Mini was an attempt to revolutionize small cars and connect the emotions of the past with the technology of the future. But now they went on and made it bigger, and at some point, who knows we might be getting a `Mini-mini.’’’

Stephenson also commented that Korean carmakers such as Hyundai, which has a reputation for reliable and affordable cars, but not desirable ones, are beginning to acquire a ``design language,’’ and said he is looking forward to the release of the newer version of the Hyundai Genesis sedan.


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