Bentley celebrated its 100th anniversary yesterday by showing off a vision of what driving on its 115th anniversary might be like. The EXP 100 GT concept, a sleek and futuristic, optionally piloted sport coupe, brings a host of innovations that represent the ultra-premium carmaker's first foray into true mobility.
That doesn't simply mean electrification—though that's definitely part of the equation, given the car's thin, dispersed battery slung underneath the passenger compartment. (It's a strategy that allows for more elegant sculpting, says head exterior designer John Paul Gregory.) Nor does it simply mean the interior can be easily configured with multiple seating options, which it can, or that the driver can opt at his or her whim to either drive the car or let the machine do the work, after securely tucking away the steering wheel.
All of this was firmly billboarded at the reveal, broadcast from the company's headquarters in Crewe, England, but those are also relatively familiar concepts now, ones that are easy enough to embrace these days. Rather, the most important signal that Bentley is adapting to the changing times is the front grille. The massive, dynamic mesh consists of 6,000 LED lights that not only lend the car a bold forward statement—as well as the option for lots of pretty and colorful welcome dances when the driver approaches—but also serve an important function in the future of global mobility: Communication.
The light array, as Gregory points out, can be used to communicate the vehicle's intentions while in autonomous-driving mode. At a bare minimum, it can simply signal that it's being piloted by the computer rather than the human inside, thereby telling pedestrians and other vehicles that it should pay attention to the grille area of the vehicle when, say, crossing in front of it, rather than establishing eye contact with the driver. Though the company didn't unpack this capability too deeply during the presentation, it's easy to see how the grill can be used to signal what the vehicle is about to do in ways more nuanced than mere turn signals and far beyond binary indications of its present mode. It can use text or dynamic graphics to indicate it's wanting to pull into a parking spot, or it can signal pedestrians to go ahead and cross in front of it—that it won't mow them down in the process. (Not that it ever would, but these are humans we're talking about ...) It can alert other cars that it's actively accelerating or braking, or that it might be pausing in its driving, waiting for its owner to finish grabbing coffee.
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This sort of communication will be vital 15 years from now, when we're deep into the transition between all-human drivers and a mix of human and computerized pilots. Obviously, the communication systems will need a degree of standardization and universal comprehensibility—and many researchers and carmakers are already studying these challenges—but Bentley's LED mesh is an excellent contribution to that conversation. It's both attractive and functional, and the fact that it's coming from an ultra-premium luxury brand is merely a pleasant surprise. This is especially true given that some such manufacturers seem to be deliberately avoiding the issue, as though its somehow beneath them to contemplate it.
Beyond the sci-fi fascia—and the remarkably Battlestar Galactica-looking crystal driver interface in the dash—there's a lot more going on in this car that further suggest it's more than a mere stylistic birthday present from Bentley to itself. The slew of features built into the proposal, which Gregory fully acknowledges represent the team's hopes and dreams about future driving, include fully sustainable interior materials, artificially intelligent driver assistance systems that can identify your mood and gin up an interior environment—via light as well as imagery presented on displays embedded in the glass—that helps you relax or even become more energized, and it precisely controls ambient lighting, acoustics, and even the scent. It uses advanced gesture controls for everyone on board, and can replay highlights of past journeys, if your suburban commute isn't quite as satisfying as your road trip through Cote D'Azur the summer before may have been. When you do arrive, striking scissor doors will rise to almost 10 feet high to help announce you to the world as dramatically as possible. (It's still a Bentley, after all ....)
Elsewhere, active-aero wheels can be adapted on the fly to accommodate efficiency or performance, lightweight composites contribute to a low(ish) curb weight of 4,200 pounds, and its four-motor electric powertrain will shoot the car to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds on the way to a top speed of 186 mph—presumably not in the law-abiding self-driving mode. It will charge to 80 percent capacity in 15 minutes and drive 435 miles on a single charge.
Of course, many of these capabilities are in sync with current technologies and performance expectations, and it's hard to imagine that charge times will still be an issue 15 years from now. On the other hand, technology has a way of occasionally adopting more snail-like paces, despite endless proclamations to the contrary, and the battery tech isn't quite there yet to expect a 435-mile range from a car of this type.
In that sense, props, as well, to the company for presenting a reasonably realistic timeline for ideas included in the EXP 100 GT. In an age when next-gen mobility efforts all breathlessly swear we'll be reaping the rewards of full autonomy and widespread electrification within just a few years, it's refreshing to see at least somewhat restrained estimates, acknowledging that it will take time for all this to gel into roadable hardware—at least, that is, to the standards that Bentley typically expects from its final products.