Renault has, in the absence of an actual Geneva Motor Show (thank you, Coronavirus COVID-19) shown off its Morphoz concept car online (there's going to be a lot of that this week...).
Modular bodywork shrinks and extends
Describing the Morphoz as a "smart, modular, crossover vehicle designed for a shared electric future," Renault says it's a not-too-futuristic concept that gives us an idea of what to expect from the French company's upcoming electric and connected models, as well as a glimpse at autonomy and, to judge from the styling, the next-generation of Kadjar and Koleos SUVs.
The Morphoz is built around Renault's new CMF-EV platform, a dedicated electric car structure that will be shared across multiple brands and models from the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.
Intriguingly, Renault has designed the Morphoz to be able to switch between two lengths and subtly different body styling, depending on what space you need and what driving you're doing. The switch takes place at battery charging and swapping stations. There's a City version, which is 4.4 metres long overall (about the size of a Kadjar) and has a 40kWh battery that gives it a range of around 400km. The exterior styling is a little different too, compared to the longer model, and features more exterior LED lighting details. Renault claims that, even in this more compact configuration, the Morphoz has "an onboard experience which matches a vehicle usually found in the luxury segment."
The bigger version is 4.8 metres long - roughly Koleos-sized - and has a longer wheelbase (2.9 metres compared to 2.7 metres). In this 'Travel Mode' there's more legroom and a bigger boot, and the front styling tapers more aggressively, for improved aerodynamics on longer journeys. Those journeys can, potentially, be very long. When you're changing the vehicle from City to Travel mode, you can also expand the battery pack from that standard 40kWh to as much as 90kWh, giving a theoretical range of 700km.
Battery pack expands to give range of 700km
Those battery packs are modular, and the idea is that packs not being used by a vehicle can also be used, at the swapping stations, as power sinks to store electricity generated by non-constant renewables such as wind power, and which can also be used to power local street lighting and businesses.
Now, it's massively unlikely that Renault will go to the trouble of engineering a production car that can shrink and expand at will, and it's more likely that the Morphoz is hinting at two separate, but similar, models in the mould of the current Kadjar and Koleos instead. The battery pack idea is feasible, though, and would allow for a lower purchase price (with the smaller 40kWh pack), but the option of renting bigger packs for longer journeys. According to its maker: "Renault believes that it has a key role and responsibility to do everything it can to reduce the carbon footprint of vehicles and other technological solutions. With the Morphoz and its battery-sharing system, there is no need to produce batteries with a nominal 90kWh capacity for every vehicle. Limiting production in this way is good for the carbon footprint and the environment."
Inside the Morphoz, Renault is touting its new artificial intelligence system as a way to "immerse driver and passengers in a welcoming and calm environment." The AI can recognise when a particular person is approaching the car, by detecting either their key or their mobile phone, and pre-set the seat, heating and entertainment system to their tastes. There's also a 'welcoming voice' from the system as you enter the cabin. The driver's smartphone slots into a special niche on the dash, which then automatically integrates the phone with the car's onboard systems for data, navigation, entertainment, etc.
Helpful and welcoming AI system
The AI system also constantly processes information coming from the Morphoz's exterior sensors, and uses interior lights to alert the driver to any possible dangers - a cyclist in the blind spot when you're about to turn across a junction, for example. There are voice, touch and gesture controls while the AI assistant automatically reads your diary in your phone to calculate the most efficient route between appointments. In Travel mode, assuming that you have more leisure time, the AI will automatically inform you of local points of interest on your journey, especially those with electric car chargers.
As well as recognising the driver's phone, the Morphoz also picks up info from passengers' phones, and automatically plays their favourite tunes through speakers built into each individual seat, creating a specific sound bubble for each occupant of the car.
There are some typical concept car flourishes on the Morphoz, such as an oblong steering wheel and doors that open clap-hands style, with no central pillar. The actual cabin architecture, though, rather as with the exterior styling, looks entirely feasible, with a big central touchscreen blending seamlessly in with a digital instrument panel. Mind you, that panel is designed to fold away when the car is in autonomous mode, so maybe it's a little futuristic.
The front passenger seat is also designed to turn through 180 degrees so as to facilitate conversation with those in the rear (good for safety in a frontal impact, too) and the rear seats automatically slide back for extra legroom when the Morphoz is converted from City to Travel mode.
Renault says that the Morphoz is Level 3 autonomous - that means that the driver can take their hands and eyes off the main controls but must be ready to intervene when needed.
On the outside, the Morphoz has an angular, upright shape, but Renault has taken care to optimise the aerodynamics. Small vents that feed cooling air to the battery system can close when not needed, while the twin bonnet scoops, normally associated with turbochargers, are actually there to cool the on-board computers.
There are massive 22-inch wheels with a diamond pattern, and an exterior battery capacity display that doubles as a design detail. Renault says that the exterior battery gauge, which will feature on future electric models, has also been designed as a tribute to the side vents on Renault cars dating from 1910 to 1920.
At the rear, the C-pillar has a quarterlight integrated into it, which appears as striped yellow and black in the shorter City mode, but which expands into a bigger, more sharply defined form when the rear of the car extends. Ditto the boot lid, which juts out in a much more convex shape when extended into Travel mode. Renault has possibly been watching too many Transformers movies, as it describes "the active bodywork moving the rear wings out, like the side flaps on a fighter plane, by a few centimetres to allow the chassis to slide as the vehicle switches from one mode to the other." Cool stuff, though.