François Leboine: “Designers try to better tomorrow’s world by observing today’s”

Published by on 10.12.2020 - 8 min

With one foot in the present and the other in the future, it’s clear that François Leboine has a talent for mentally juggling both time and space. Dreaming up and designing the mobility of the future is an integral part of his mission. Meet the head of concept car design at Renault.

By definition, designing concept cars entails looking forward to the future. What’s the overarching philosophy that governs your current work?

With concept cars, we’re telling the story of the future. As designers, this kind of project forces us to imagine what future usage will probably look like, and to respond with innovations that sometimes don’t even exist yet. That’s the ‘futurologist’ aspect of being a designer. We’re plunging people into a positive future through a sensorial, emotional design approach.

François Leboine
François Leboine

Where do you get your inspiration when creating prototypes?

By principle, designers are always on the lookout for things that are shaping the future. In our industry, the projects that the public will discover for the first time two years from now are projects we finished at least a year ago. We live in the future; there’s a kind of temporal gap between designers and the rest of the population. Designers try to better tomorrow’s world by observing today’s. Understanding society is fundamental; we draw ideas from what we see. We read tons of articles, we try to sense changing tides in society that will determine future aesthetic, conceptual, and usage trends.

The future for automobiles includes transforming the way we use cars—in particular by turning them into a kind of living space in which we can put our travel time to good use. Concretely, what does that mean?

Cars have always been a kind of personal space, but up until now, their purpose has been primarily centered on the act of driving itself. 80% of the experience is about driving the car, 20% is about the passengers. There’s a temporal aspect involved, too. We account for our time: we live in a society where we absolutely must be doing something with our time. We can help infuse travel time with some added enjoyment as a way to bring balance back to people’s lives. Work and games will become part of the car, as will opportunities to rest your mind, which seems absolutely essential to me in today’s society.

This is something that will radically transform car interiors.

We’re on the verge of an electric revolution that will allow us to completely rethink vehicle design. This revolution will allow us to set aside less space for mechanical parts and create more for passengers. Despite their increased technological capabilities, electric vehicles allow for greater conceptual flexibility. From this point forward, we’ll be able to adapt the car interior to passengers’ needs much more than we ever have. First of all, we’ll be able to have more space onboard and radically simplify the act of driving with Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS). We can also introduce more modularity. The possibilities will grow even more with the arrival of new generation batteries. The real onboard revolution will be created by the introduction of new batteries that are smaller, lighter, solid but flexible, and integrated directly into the car body.

At Renault, what’s the estimated release date for self-driving cars?

Drivers may not realise this, but today’s vehicles are already partially autonomous. They can already navigate within lanes, anticipate emergency braking, and park themselves. Half of car autonomisation has already been achieved. The other half will arrive in the same way, step-by-step, within 10 years. It will start being used and incorporated naturally, almost imperceptibly, though it will be a major technical revolution and will radically transform our relationship to cars.

“The use of augmented reality in cars will help make trips simpler and more comfortable.”

Will augmented reality become a part of the onboard experience?

We really want to hang on to the panoramic dimension of car travel, and I very much believe that augmented reality can help enrich that. Travel is a sensory experience that goes well beyond just visual exploration. The use of augmented reality in cars will help make trips simpler and more comfortable. I imagine AR being able to provide drivers and passengers with just the information they need at the moment they need it. This will certainly help us combat information excess and overuse of screens inside cars. But what AR will also add, using artificial intelligence, is a whole new dimension to the travel experience, allowing passengers to learn more about the places they drive through. In my opinion, it would be a shame to place car users into a 100% virtual world.

I’ve also heard about ‘smart cars’ – or vehicles that are able to take your mood into account. What kinds of innovations are planned around this subject?

The autonomisation of cars is of course already well underway, as is driver recognition technology, which is very useful particularly with regards to car-sharing. We’re moving towards cars that will be able to automatically save each person’s settings, and we’re heading towards more and more vehicle-sharing models. A car’s ability to respond to our moods will increase as sensors become more finely-tuned. From a digital point of view, we’ll just need to be careful to not let cars become too intrusive as in the case of smartphones, for example.

Let’s daydream a bit. In 2050, how do you envision future cars?

Defining the future is an interesting exercise. I think that cars will become part of a global mobility scheme that doesn’t put them at odds with trains or airplanes. We’ll have to reconsider how we can make cars more relevant by accentuating their ability to create a kind of relationship with their drivers, and offer them an emotional experience that other forms of locomotion can’t. That’s crucial.

How can vehicle designers take future environmental issues into account?

Designers are citizens like everyone else. However, designers have a particular responsibility vis-à-vis society’s relationship to consumerism, which is something they can act upon. In their work, designers are used to making the best of constraints. Ecological considerations will bring new ones, including a major challenge, which is to create more durable objects that are as functional as they are beautiful. Responding to environmental challenges means rethinking car design in a global way in order to reduce impact as much as possible.

“We’re all trying to find real meaning in what we do. It’s not a simple matter of making dashboards out of bamboo.”

How does that translate in terms of using recycled materials and reducing plastic use?

That’s something we can’t help but think about. Now is the time to speed up the process. This is one of the key things we’re studying and it’s vital for the automobile industry. Today, we’re all trying to find real meaning in what we do. It’s not a simple matter of making dashboards out of bamboo. We need to go beyond appearances and ask ourselves: where does this material come from? What kinds of resources will be consumed by industrialising it? What’s its recycling potential, or even, how long will it last? Your choice of materials has to be filtered through these kinds of questions in order to figure out what their real impact will be in a given context.

Noise reduction inside and outside the vehicle seems to be an important issue. How possible is it to eliminate noise?

In tomorrow’s world, apart from the sound of the tires on the road, which is somewhat hard to avoid, we could quite easily have a vehicle with zero noise emissions. But if you want silence, you need a way to help people ‘hear’ noise from cars in another way. The question is, how do you ensure people hear electric cars coming? How do you provide that sense of speed, of movement, of acceleration, of deceleration without noise? We answered these questions in 2012 with ZOE, but there’s more thinking that has to be done on this subject—as much around vehicle safety as around a car’s acoustic identity. Onboard, sound can be a source of information for drivers, an identifying feature of the brand. You could think of sound as part of the car’s overall sensory experience. These are aspects we’re already considering as we develop vehicles, and ones that are to be strengthened so that a car can interact more and more with its occupants, and so it continues to bring people pleasure even as more constraints are placed on it.

Is vehicle-sharing a major factor that needs to be considered when designing a concept car?

Obviously, and for two reasons. The first is car overpopulation. The number of vehicles in the world will need to be restricted and contained. There’s also the question of cost: more and more, drivers are going to start realising that they’re not actually using their vehicles all the time. They’re going to become aware that their car’s unused time can be optimised purely in financial terms via loans or sharing. It makes sense to design vehicles that will make sharing both possible and even desirable.

You’ve worked on the Morphoz concept car. Can you tell us about the development of this project? What were your key goals in creating this model?

One was to start a conversation about the new generation of electric vehicles from Renault, what I call ‘Renault Electric 2.0.’ The second was to show that Morphoz was not ‘just’ an electric car, but a fully-fledged car in its own right. It’s a model that takes the automobile’s social, sociological, and historical past into account, as well as its future. We wanted to preserve the pleasure of a well-proportioned, beautifully-designed object. It’s completely aligned with the needs of the future, but fits in with the current environment, and it’s going to resonate more as the world moves towards increased sustainability.

MORPHOZ concept-car, by Marco Brunori
exterior design of the MORPHOZ concept car

Vehicle-to-Grid technology is central to Morphoz’s design. Can you explain what it is?

The concept of Vehicle-to-Grid technology is that you’ll be able to have electric cars integrated into the global electricity network, allowing you to store energy as well as provide it. Morphoz is helping develop this idea. The use of Vehicle-to-Grid technology means that the energy you use can also be restored, via the grid, to the city, to the environment, and to other electric cars. So Morphoz isn’t just an electric vehicle, it’s also an energy storage unit that can serve the community.


Cédric Couvez, L’ADN journalist
L’ADN is the media on innovation that every day analyses the best concepts of the new economy on the web and in magazine format.



Copyrights : Groupe Renault