SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA is the car world's crystal ball: Home to the most advanced car-design studios in the country, it's the place all the big carmakers look when they want to see the future.
And, indeed, the entries in the second annual Los Angeles Auto Show Design Challenge are plenty futuristic-looking. The competition gives 10 studios the chance to pursue far-flung ideas without worrying about budgets or narrow focus-group preferences. Guided only by a loose theme -- this year's is the pleasantly innocuous and thoroughly unrestrictive "An L.A. Adventure" -- designers from Audi, Hyundai, Mercedes and other carmakers produced vehicles ready to knife through cityscapes that have yet to be imagined, let alone built.
But if you consider that the word "automobile," at its most literal, simply means a vehicle that moves by itself, then maybe it's more accurate to think of the 10 competing concepts as a return to the fundamentals of car design.
The entries suggest a coming age in which driving -- physically applying the gas pedal and pointing a vehicle from Point A to Point B -- will be the least of a car owner's concerns. Stymied by traffic jams but liberated by technology, L.A. drivers of the future will have a long list of other things on their minds as they climb into their vehicles -- so much so, in fact, that a straightforward magazine title such as Car and Driver may seem woefully out of date in a few years' time. If competition is any guide, the newsstand will need a new batch of journals to do justice to the ways Americans use their cars.
Here are a few to look for:
Car and Oenophile
Maybach's entry, the California Gourmet Tourer, offers a limousine trip through the wine country -- without the limo. Anticipating the day when cars will be piloted by satellites and sensors embedded in the pavement, the three-wheeled Tourer has a transparent midsection and a kitchen table surrounded by Eero Saarinen-style chairs so that passengers can recline, swirl and sip as the vineyard-covered landscape zips by.
"Since it's fully automated, there are no worries about drunk driving," lead designer Andre Frey points out. The Tourer also features an espresso machine, a refrigerator (for the cave-aged Gruyere, presumably) and, at the rear, a tiny wine cabinet. "We were going to try something related to barbecue," Frey says, "but then decided to go a little higher-end." No kidding.
Car and Exercise Freak
The designers at Honda couldn't decide on a single entry, so they took their seven favorite schemes and crammed them into a display modeled on a movie poster. The most intriguing is the Running Bus, a hybrid that would be powered by the feet of passengers, jogging on side-by-side treadmills. (Instead of running for the bus, in other words, you could run on the bus.) In Southern California, world leader in both gridlock and gym memberships, this is probably the most plausible design in the entire competition, even if it does recall the foot-powered Flintstones car. The design lacks one key feature, though: A gigantic white '80s-style headband, with the destination printed on it, wrapping around the exterior.
Car and Homeowner
The design by GMC, called the PAD, is not a car, it's "a modern alternative for those priced out of Southern California's escalating housing market."
With a look that suggests the product of a shotgun marriage between an Airstream trailer and Disney Hall -- designer Steve Anderson says his chief inspirations were Frank Gehry and another architect, Zaha Hadid -- the PAD is a studio apartment on wheels, a vehicle designed to rid the mobile home of its down-market stigma. In "drive mode," the PAD features a diesel-electric hybrid engine; in "life mode," DirecTV and stainless-steel appliances.
"When the cheapest little cottage in North Hollywood is going for $500,000, then maybe it's time to be coming up with some new ideas," Anderson says. "We wanted to create something that would look at home in Dwell magazine, a place you could bring your date back to without feeling embarrassed."
Wait -- GM owners get dates?
Car and Lifeguard
As the designers from Smart envision it, the beach of the future will be patrolled by nimble rescue vehicles with a hard-to-miss color scheme and chunky wheels. It is equipped with an 800cc turbo engine, has room for an extensive first-aid kit and can be switched into amphibious mode -- liberating lifeguards from the antiquated requirement that they actually learn how to swim.
The rest of the roster
This year's finalists also include Audi's Nero (the ultimate nightclubbing car), Mitsubishi's sleek roadster and a Mercedes that looks as if it could roam the moon. Entries from Hyundai, Kia and a Toyota Scion round out the final top 10. They can be seen online beginning Friday, at www.laautoshow.com.
The jury for this year's Design Challenge is made up of teachers from three of the country's top transportation-design schools, including Stewart Reed of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The winner will be announced during the L.A. Auto Show in January.
Christopher Hawthorne is the Times' architecture critic. He can be reached at christopher .firstname.lastname@example.org.