Last night, at the London Transport Museum in the corner of Covent Garden, I saw the shape of things to come.

At a special showcase marking 40 years of what’s probably the most influential vehicle design course in the world, nineteen students of the Royal College of Art showed off their individual takes on what cars – specifically Opel and Vauxhall cars – will become by the middle of this century. They were taking part in a competition, sponsored by GM, called Fast Forward Forty Years. And as you’ll see in the pictures below, their ideas were imaginative in the wildest extreme.

Because the proposals were so various, it’s a tricky job now to find common ground between them. The designers were encouraged to disregard every piece of received wisdom about the current car market and think totally freely; they had to come up with a new ‘user scenario’ for the year 2049, and then design a car to suit. Which is why conventional things like engines, seats, doors and wheels were thin on the ground.

See the full gallery of the RCA students' designs

Among the models was ‘Cerulian’, an amazing shell-like car designed to look robust and protective from the outside, but be enveloping and cushioned within. ‘Teardrop Sanctuary’, is a translucent bubble-like car with winglets instead of wheels. ‘Sedimento’ and ‘Darwin 049’, would both run on ‘maglev’ magnetic tracks above the ground. There was also ‘Adaptable Surfaces’, which would use nano-technology to alter its shape to harness both wind and wave power.

To begin with, you can’t help labelling these cars as unrealistic. As one fellow hack commented last night, forty years ago Ford had just starting making the Escort – a car with two doors, four wheels, four seats, pedals, a steering wheel and a petrol engine. How far have we come since then? Not very far, and there’s no good reason to expect us to make the kind of advances needed to make flying or driverless cars real in the next 40 years.

What you have to remember, though, is that it’s the car designer’s job to dream big; to make the kind of imaginative leaps that cause the close-minded to snipe and tut. Because if they can’t have the really revolutionary ideas, who will?

If one common strand ran through all of the really impressive proposals, it was that they were all conveyances rather than drivers’ cars. Most operated completely autonomously – some even entertained their occupants during their journey with virtual dreamscapes – but none really seemed to be designed to involve or entertain the driver.

As an aside, you may find it a little concerning that RCA vehicle design students – the men and women who, without doubt, will go on to become some of the most important car designers in the world over the next 20 years – don’t seem to see a future for drivers’ cars. If I’m honest, I did. But then I believe that the last car in the world will be a sports car, because once you remove the need for basic transportation from your list of reasonsto own one – I’m sure that, one day, someone finally will – what other reason is there but because you enjoy driving it?

Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer creative power of the minds in that room last night. They had been occupied by thinking about these cars since only the end of March, and yet they had imagined whole worlds complete with inhabitants, as well as cars that would appeal to them. For someone like me, it’s impossible to understand where you’d even start with a task like that.

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