From superhero cars to environmentally friendly vehicles, German designer Harald Berkel has vast experience in all sectors of the automotive industry. He has designed cars for the cinema screen as well as for the roads and immersed himself in futuristic modes of transportation. In an exclusive interview, Berkel talks about the challenges of new technologies.
The German artist has a background in automotive design. After studying engineering he attended the art Center College of Design in California. As a fresh graduate, he joined Porsche in Germany but after a year he switched back to Mercedes in California. He worked there for four years and co-designed the Smart car.
Then, “due to absolute luck by being in the right place at the right time” Belker kick-started his career in the cinema sector and designed the Batmobile for the movie ‘Batman and Robin’. In retrospect he says that “the experience of working with the people in the industry was as good as the movie was bad”. Nevertheless, Belker enjoyed the job as he could go over the top with the design; the more outrageous it was the better.
His true professional fulfilment, however, came with the design of the red Lexus sports car and vehicle pods for the film ‘Minority Report’. It was a “great challenge and as a designer it gave me the chance to really incorporate future thinking and styling,” says Belker. In the movie, the pods ride on a vast urban magnetic levitation system that is computer-controlled and accident-free. The pods move at speeds of 80 to 100 miles per hour and can make seamless transitions between vertical and horizontal surfaces. Since the vehicles don’t need to be steered, the seats face each other so the passengers can have a chat. It’s a safe, environmentally friendly and comfortable mode to travel.
Belker enjoys working on futurist models with alternative and renewable energy sources. He designed the Solar Monkey, a four-wheeler based on a golf cart that is entirely powered by solar panels. He also created the Herrman Super E-Sports Car. With sharp edges and a low-rider superhero car design, the E-Sports would have been a wonderful vehicle to combine racy looks with an electric engine. Unfortunately, neither the Solar Monkey nor the Herrman were produced.
The problem with new automotive technology is the costs. “The vehicles at car shows display what is possible or what designers and engineers think of for the future. [But] will many of these innovations make it into actual cars? Most likely not,” says Belker. “With today’s technology available, cars should never let a driver lose control or hit another vehicle or person.” The technology is there but the money unfortunately not.
Sometimes it’s not a financial problem but simply bad timing. Belker designed the first full electric bicycle on the market for Lee Iacocca. They produced a sensational, stylish and well-functioning e-bike but it never took off. “It failed because the US market doesn’t really need an electric bike. Here we don’t commute by bike like they do in Europe or Asia. A bike is to exercise, and what would be the point of riding an e-bike, you might as well stay on the sofa,” explains the designer. It was an amazing project, though and it “still leaves us with a chuckle and a tear,” he adds.
There is no simple solution for the future of transportation, believes Belker. “I am fortunate to work from home and I get to dream up scenarios where things could actually work.” One of the things he dreams up is a Formula 1 on a magnetic levitation system. The cars wouldn’t have tyres and would be powered by electricity. This way there would be no speed limit. Belker and his colleagues imagine race cars that can reach 300 km/h in 9.1 seconds and accelerate to up to 500 km/h. So far, the idea exists only virtually in computer programmes. But we are sure that one day, the money and the timing will be right.