Innovation The Finale: Our winner revealed...

The winning vision for a modular car of the future has been unveiled following the conclusion of our student collaboration with Central Saint Martins (part of University of the Arts London). Yuchen Cai’s phenomenally ambitious concept, Float, was brought to life during her intensive two-week internship at Renault’s design studio in Paris, before making its public debut at London’s designjunction trade show (21-24 September). 

We caught up with Yuchen and some of the judges to find out why she won, how Renault’s designers helped to refine her idea and what’s next for vehicles of the future. 

What set Yuchen's idea apart?


‘The competition was about more than transport. It was about how people and cities are connected, and how technology changes the way people are connected,’ explained Nick Rhodes, Product, Ceramic and Industrial Design Programme Leader at Central Saint Martins, who mentored each student throughout the competition. ‘How do you bring people together in a way that feels natural?’

‘The judging process was really difficult, it was a long conversation. We all agreed that Yuchen’s project was most compelling in terms of the way that it brings together disparate expectations in such a successful way. It feels futuristic but it also feels very now, as these floating amorphous bubbles drive down the street.’ 

Fellow judge François Leboine, Chief of Exterior Design at Renault, said: ‘We wanted all the finalists to feel like they were also chosen. We pushed every student to the maximum they could give. That was the main goal and that’s what I do with my designers in the studio in Paris. Anyone should have the chance to be the winner.’

‘Yuchen’s answer to the brief was very professional. The difference between “the student” and “the professional” is an ability to find a good balance. Of course, we didn’t expect a professional answer; we expected something advanced but radical in answer to a problem. This balance was why we chose her in the end.’

‘What’s more, Yuchen is a reserved person, she didn’t understand the gravity of her proposition. She was so surprised to be chosen... we had to turn this humility into her strength. We had to push it further, to give her confidence.’

Renault Vice President of Exterior Design, Anthony Lo, added: ‘I have to say that her concept was already quite mature in its final phase, back in June when we had to pick the finalists.’

‘We had set them a real challenge. There’s a big difference between industrial design and car design. Car aesthetics are very different: this object has to look good when it’s big, and from every possible angle. It takes a long time to refine. When we saw Yuchen’s concept, it was already quite refined on its own. It fitted in with the Renault design language, which is simple, sensual and warm. For me, this was it.’

How did Yuchen's design evolve when she went to the Renault design centre in Paris?

After months of grafting to refine and push her design proposal further, Yuchen was granted an intensive two-week internship at Renault’s design studio in Paris. We asked her how she got on:

‘It was a first for me to do a two-week internship in a such a huge and professional design studio. Honestly, I was a little bit nervous about it, going there alone – I’d been in Paris only once before.’

‘The designers were very nice and treated me like a friend. They gave me advice about technical things I’d never thought about before, like the scale, the shape of the seat, and how to do the surface and the polish – this was something I had no experience of and their expertise helped enormously.’ 

‘We kept the key message of my project – like the opacity, the peanut shape, the non-directional aspect with no wheels and the idea of tessellation – but we changed the belt in the centre of the vehicle, which was used to connect each model. We removed the belt and made [the connection] more magnetised. Now it looks clearer and much simpler. And we changed a lot about the seating – it looks more like a helmet now.’

‘To see what I’d made in the software come [to life] with the model they’ve made is amazing.’

Yuchen’s mentor at Central Saint Martins, Nick Rhodes gave us his perspective on seeing the Float model and final video for the first time:

‘What you can see is the way the techno centre in Paris brought her concept to life. They’ve coached her and helped her resolve some of the details so that it’s even truer to her original idea. They have helped her retain the most important ideas of privacy and visibility. For instance, the opacity of the surrounding glass changes – you can decide how much you want to see or be seen. Her idea has been amplified.’

François Leboine worked closely with Yuchen during her two-week stint in Paris, so we asked him for the inside scoop:

‘Renault design can seem huge, but my design team is actually quite small – it’s 25 people who do all the exterior designs in the techno centre. They are normal guys and were all students once in design schools; for them, design school feels like yesterday. Every day we’re together in the studio just like when we were in school. Sure, there’s competition, but we’re friends. The studio is very natural. We gave Yuchen a desk right in the middle. If someone new came into the studio, they couldn’t have said, “Oh, she’s the intern.” The only difference for her was pressure. And for us, the pressure we had was time – we had two weeks and, for us, that’s nothing.’

‘Part of the job of a designer is to know how to make things better. I asked Yuchen to find one important message and to simplify it. And if there was a second, it’s secondary in importance, and so on. That was the difficulty: it’s hard to get rid of something. But it’s the French way, that process of learning – how to get to the point. I let her do it by herself, because that was important for her to learn.’

‘I put her with one of our designers, Joe Reeve – a super-nice guy with a lot of experience. She didn’t know this, but he’s actually the lead designer of the Z33 SYMBIOZ, our new concept car that’s just been in Frankfurt. He’s one of the most creative guys in our studio. He’s doing crazy things like swimming pools with wheels that look like a car.’

For Anthony Lo, 'The refinement came when we had to consider how to actually make Yuchen’s sketches and story of magnetism, tessellation and no wheels into a model. We didn’t actually think about how to get in and out of it exactly, so we had a better chance to work on that when she came to the techno centre. We also tried to think about the material choices and how to actually build this object in 3D. We built the concept into a 3D model digitally and until that very point we didn’t even know how to make it into a model that we could present. It was interesting, though: because of the unique peanut-like shape, you cannot make the model in our traditional way. We took on the task – we’ve never made anything like this before. We were presented with a new challenge, a challenge of the future.’

What's next for Yuchen and Renault's vehicle design?

So how do projects such as these help the Renault design team see into the future? And what’s next for Yuchen?

‘We work with a lot of external agencies,’ said Central Saint Martins’ Nick Rhodes, ‘but this has been one of the best experiences yet. The Renault team have been so supportive and trusting. It’s been a great partnership and we’d love to do another year.’

Anthony Lo explained that, ‘already people have been asking if Yuchen is going to work for us in the future and I said, why not, it could be fun! In the two weeks [of her internship] she saw how we work in a professional car-design studio, and interacted with designers and model-makers. This will help her in the following years to do something different.’

‘Working with Yuchen and Central Saint Martins opened our eyes. We gave these students the same brief we would have given to our designers, yet the result is totally different. We would never build a car looking like this tomorrow, but why not in 15 years?’

François Leboine added: ‘For us at Renault, it’s important not to have an answer that is predictable. We tried to push the finalists beyond the proposal, to bring something out in them that was really personal and their own unique way of seeing things.’

‘Our work is about personality and our relationship to the work. It’s very subtle, but I can feel that Yuchen is growing. I really expect her to go far in her design life and I hope that we’ve opened something in her mind, that we’ve freed some of her creativity somehow. This is just the beginning.’

And Yuchen’s final say? 

‘I designed Float to create an easy life and I think that’s what I want to do as a designer going forward. I think the car is a tool for mobility… they can drive themselves, take you anywhere you want and you can do anything you want inside the vehicle. Or just enjoy the journey. The boundaries get blurred. It’s more than just getting from A to B. I wanted to enable the driver and the passenger to interact with the outside world, that’s why it’s transparent. It can let the outside world into the vehicle – the streets and the countryside can come inside the car. That’s the trend of the future.’