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Nissan IMx: crossover electric vehicle design for the autonomous driving era

Recent technological advancements are spurring the greatest evolutionary leap for automobiles since the car was invented. Electrification and vehicle intelligence are having a big impact on how cars are designed, engineered and thought of, and may change the very idea of “driving.”

At the core of the Nissan IMx concept vehicle is the evolution of ProPILOT. Already featured in the new Nissan LEAF, the system has been developed further to offer fully autonomous driving that requires no human intervention. The IMx explores the design direction of fully autonomous vehicles in the near future.

 

Designed for the age of fully autonomous driving

The foundation of the IMx’s overall design was inspired by traditional Japanese culture, said Satoru Tai, executive design director at Nissan.

“Today, cars are designed with a clear separation between the inside and outside, providing a sense of security to its passengers while giving the driver an appropriate environment to concentrate on driving,” Tai said. “However, the very fabric of automotive design as we know it today will likely change with the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles. In designing the IMx, I first envisioned how space should be utilized in the age of fully autonomous driving.”

Tai envisioned a new sense of openness – a totally different way of expressing space. To benefit from enhanced space without sacrificing privacy, he came up with a new type of design that connects the inside and outside of the vehicle. This led him to look closely at the aesthetic values and sensibilities of traditional Japanese culture.

“For example, in western architecture, the outside and inside of a building are separated by a thick wall, and compounds are usually surrounded by a sturdy fence,” Tai said. “But in traditional Japanese architecture, a building is lined by thin shoji, a paper screen that gives the people inside an idea of what’s outside through the movement of light and shadows, as well as sound. And a piece of property is often surrounded only by a kakine (hedge), whose openness enables people to experience the passing of the seasons. When I thought about the spatial design that connects the inside and outside of the IMx, a vehicle created for the age of fully autonomous driving, I realized a connection to the aesthetic values of Japanese traditions, or wa (harmony).”

Tai said another Japanese custom provided inspiration when imagining the design of the IMx: martial arts.

“When thinking about how to express the unique characteristics of an EV – quiet and smooth, yet powerful and agile – the image that came to mind was the principle of ma (a unique sense of space and time) in martial arts,” Tai said. “In the martial art of kendo, whose literal translation is ‘the way of the sword,’ the fighter stands quietly holding a bamboo sword in front of him, keeping a calculated distance, or maintaining ma, from his opponent. Despite his composed demeanor, he is ready to strike instantly. I saw a similar quality in an EV, which operates quietly but can burst into rapid acceleration at a moment’s notice. My task was to incorporate that quality in the vehicle’s design.”

These insights resulted in the first electric crossover concept vehicle that applies the ideas of wa – represented in the IMx’s aesthetic sense of beauty – and ma, reflected by its composed, yet powerful nature.

 

Expressing the nature of electric cars

The main challenge that faced the design team when styling the IMx was how to portray the unique characteristics of an electric vehicle in its exterior appearance.

“With conventional gasoline-engine vehicles, we often resort to implementing powerful motifs to express their dynamism and sportiness,” Tai said. “However, a similar approach wouldn’t work with electric vehicles, because they have a quiet and clean image. Therefore, expressing the nature of these cars required a completely different approach.”

Tai explained further: “Japanese swords are made from layers of steel that are hammered down to a thin piece, which is then folded and hammered again. This process is performed over and over, until you have the ideal blade. The thin piece of steel may look fragile, but it’s both flexible and tough. Japanese swords symbolize strength and beauty backed by high technology.

“The making of washi, or traditional Japanese paper, also involves a meticulous process in which the material is soaked in water and then filtered. Only after repeating the process over and over do you get such a subtle and durable product. I came to the conclusion that incorporating traditional Japanese craftsmanship and values into the design of the IMx was the best way to go.”

Taisuke Nakamura, the program design director and leader of the IMx design team, summed up the conceptual design of the IMx in three simple phrases: expressive purity, quiet dynamism and advanced technology.

Expressive purity: simplicity in design, with inner strength

The primary goal in designing the IMx was to ensure that it appropriately expressed the pure, clean nature of electric vehicles. The front face of the IMx is highlighted by Nissan’s signature V-motion grille, which blends smoothly into the hood. The vehicle’s silhouette is defined by a roofline that flows smoothly from front to rear. The fluid surfaces and the absence of a gap between the hood and front windshield give the IMx its aerodynamic profile.

The distinctively shaped front fenders start from the edges of the V- motion grille and overlap the sporty side panels of the IMx in a layer-like fashion. This overlapping feature keeps the air flowing over the body panel constant, resulting in low drag, and expresses the lightweight character of electric vehicles.

The glass roof provides a sense of openness to the cabin, and its darker tone gives the sense that the roofline is lower than it actually is, enhancing the sporty, aerodynamic appearance. Also, the layered pearl- white body panels express lightness and agility. These simple graphics and details, based on functionality, provide an aesthetically pleasing contrast to the clean, flowing lines of the body and introduce a new design direction for electric vehicles.

Quiet dynamism: silent and light, yet dynamic

The IMx combines the contradicting themes of “stillness” and “motion” into a new design direction for electric crossovers. The intention of the IMx’s exterior styling wasn’t to emphasize aerodynamics through the low height, but to utilize the unique stance of the crossover vehicle by expressing stability and a confident posture. The vehicle’s flowing silhouette conveys a gliding quality, while the large-diameter tires and aerodynamically designed wheels imbue the vehicle with a sense of rock- solid stability. The overall design of the IMx reflects the ability of electric vehicles to provide instant, rapid acceleration on command. The vermillion color accents, contrasting with the pearl-white body color, were inspired by uramasari, which describes the beauty and extravagance found on the inside of traditional kimonos. It represents the dynamic and powerful, yet quiet nature of electric vehicles.

Advanced technology: encompassing Nissan’s newest technologies

When the vehicle is in fully autonomous drive mode – in this case, when ProPILOT mode (PD Mode) is activated – the LED lights that run from the grille to the roof illuminate in a blue hue. The blue LED lights, placed in a block pattern that resembles a traditional kumiki (interlocking wood puzzle), start from the center of the grille and expand outward, creating a ripple-like effect.

The thin, sharp shapes of the front and rear lights are examples of Nissan’s signature boomerang design theme. The fins in the air intakes that extend from either side of the headlamps serve an aerodynamic function and also act as fog lamps for improved visibility. The geometric pattern on the front grille, also found on the head rests, was inspired by kumiki and resembles a futuristic circuit board. The styling of the IMx is one that manages to convey both traditional Japanese customs and advanced technology in a single, aesthetically pleasing package.

Interior: the openness of wa

Once you step inside the IMx, you’ll find that it’s unlike any other vehicle on the planet. The first impression is like that of entering a spacious building. We felt a need to express this openness in a fully autonomous vehicle, so we concentrated first on establishing a natural connection between the outside and the inside. Taking inspiration from the engawa – a veranda with a wooden floor that connects the outside and inside of traditional Japanese dwellings – as well as shoji paper screens, we used technology to design the IMx’s cabin in a way that conveys openness while making passengers aware of the exterior environment.

When designing the interior, Nakamura returned to the three phrases he used for the exterior: expressive purity, quiet dynamism and advanced technology.

Welcoming openness: enhanced space and connecting the inside and outside

The first things you notice inside the IMx are the four “floating” seats and the ripple pattern on the flat floor, which allows your gaze to naturally adapt from the outside scenery. Sit in the driver’s seat, and you’ll see the panoramic display that connects the instrument panel to the side doors, as well as the wood-grain ornamentation that wraps around the entire cabin. The panoramic display shows the view outside the vehicle, while the display in the wood grain-patterned panels gives occupants a sense of their surroundings. The idea came from the shoji sliding doors found in traditional Japanese homes, where the person inside the building is made aware of what’s outside by subtle movements of light and shadows. At the same time, the see-through structure of the kumiki-patterned head rests provides an unobstructed rearward view and yields a sense of openness.

When driving in PD mode, the system stows the steering wheel into the dashboard and automatically reclines the front and rear seats, giving the driver more free space and helping occupants relax and enjoy their commute.

“Cars are a mode of transportation that move with speed,” Nakamura said. “While enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the cabin, the occupants are also made aware of their surroundings with the help of the panoramic display and other specially designed effects that help them maintain a moderate level of attentiveness.”

Providing warmth with technology

The IMx features the latest technologies that will make their way into cars over the next decade. While we opted not to force the issue and overload the IMx with technical innovations, we did feature them in a more subtle way – in a warm and reserved manner.

The wood grain-patterned instrument panel and door trims were made by combining medium-density fiberboard panels, made from fibrous wood, and inlaid clear acrylic material, a process more common in crafts than in auto manufacturing. Displays are embedded inside the panels to subtly provide the vehicle’s occupants with interior awareness, a sense of comfort in manual driving mode and a moderate level of attentiveness in PD Mode. The katanagare pattern on the floating seats has been delicately etched with a laser cutter, while the kumiki-patterned head rests were made from silicon material cushioning and a frame produced by a 3D printer.

“Rather than showing off the latest technologies, we focused on expressing a sense of warmth that people can actually feel,” Nakamura said. “It was more like designing a mobile modern living room than a car interior.”

Using advanced technology to promote simplicity

The interior of the IMx is designed to express simplicity, with minimal detail, all through the use of advanced technology. We’ve minimized the number of switches in the vehicle, so that the panoramic display and wood grain-patterned panels dominate the driver’s view. Non-contact sensors and cameras monitor the driver’s intentions, enabling the control of various systems through artificial intelligence.

Nissan predicts that fully autonomous vehicles will be commonplace on the road in the near future. Our goal is to produce cars that provide driving confidence and excitement, as well as comfort and a sense of security when in fully autonomous driving mode. The IMx is not a concept car mired in pure fantasy, but rather a vehicle that embodies the future of Nissan Intelligent Mobility.

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