As we near a new decade, hyper-focused on revolution, one little outfit in far-flung Perth is working hard to stake its claim on the future.
Focused as we are on keeping buyers up-to-speed on what's good value today, our bread-and-butter is the new and upcoming models destined for the consumer market.
Still, that doesn’t mean we’re not fascinated by the more unusual technology out there, and the big ideas being developed to move transport forward. A company called Ferox Advanced Vehicles Corporation, based out of Perth, is working on a handful of those big ideas.
The concept you see here, dubbed Azaris, is designed to showcase what can be done with in-wheel motors, clever suspension and some engineering nous, and it's designed to look good doing it.
Ferox is open about the fact this is an early showcase of what some of its core technologies could do. It's trying to get the word out about what it's working on, and a concept with looks nicked from Mars in 2030 is a pretty good way to do just that. It certainly caught our eye.
That's why we sat down with Troy Wheeler, company CEO, to talk about the technology driving the Azaris, and what it could potentially do for the transport industry. We also asked if you're able to buy one. You'll need to read on for an answer...
What on earth is an Azaris?
There's a lot going on with the six-wheeler pictured here, so we're going to break it down piece-by-piece, starting with the in-wheel fluid motors. There are four of them on this particular vehicle, each at the end of a clever rocker arm. More on that later.
It's an expensive, eye-catching showpiece, designed to start a conversation about what could be done if fluid motors are further developed.
Speaking with CarAdvice in our Melbourne office, Troy Wheeler, CEO of Ferox Advanced Vehicles, starts by explaining the difference between 'fluid' and 'hydraulic' motors.
"Typical hydraulics run between 3000 and 15,000psi. They're high-pressure, they tend to be inefficient, they need big cooling reservoirs for de-foaming, and they're very jerky," Wheeler explains. "They're just horrible. Modern hydraulics are horrible."
Instead of using hydraulic fluid, the motors in the six-wheeled Azaris will be driven by 95 per cent water, with the remainder a combination of anti-corrosion, lubrication and antifreeze solution. They generally operate between 200 and 1000psi, but can push to 1500psi in high-load applications.
The in-wheel motor is driven by a pump, which itself can be operated by essentially any central power source. On the Azaris, that source is a petrol twin-cylinder BMW boxer engine, lifted from an R1200 GS motorcycle. It directly outputs to the pump, which is driven as if it's the rear wheel of a motorbike.
Looking forward, Wheeler says he sees a "beautiful pairing" between the motors and electric power.
We'd argue the bike engine already looks pretty cool nestled in the centre of the chassis, but it's very much an interim solution.
"That's really where we see it going, to have that electric/fluid relationship," he says.
"You would have a battery pack, electric motor linked into a pump, and then the pump drives the fluid transmission system, which is what's pushing around the in-wheel motors."
It's all about being fluid
The motors themselves are surprisingly simple. Fluid is pumped into ports inside the wheel hub, which pushes on a series of gates tasked with rotating the outer housing of the motor and, in turn, the wheel to which they're attached.
The company is chasing motor efficiency of 98 per cent, reliant on very fine tolerances within the motors.
"This is a very unique structure, and obviously there's a lot of intellectual property in that," Wheeler says, highlighting the fact the motors can be paired with essentially any conventional wheel design, potentially making them a "plug-and-play" solution.
They weigh around 11kg each, and each could theoretically deliver 680Nm. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to know multiplying that by four will make for punchy performance. The motors in the Azaris aren't running close to that, with the team instead focusing on making the system run smoothly and reliably before cranking up the power.
"Usually in fluid motors, a central shaft rotates to drive the wheel. Because of our unique design and structure, the outer housing rotates... the propulsion and the movement of the motor is native to operating well in a wheel," Wheeler explained.
"If the central shaft rotates, that's not going to translate the torque and motion as effectively as the outer housing rotating. You could grab a standard pump and get it to try and rotate a wheel – it's usually going to try rotate it by the internal mechanics of the pump moving, whereas with our system the outer housing rotating means it's perfectly suited to the wheel motion."
As with electric motors, the fluid setup allows for precise control of drive to individual wheels. Ferox calls it fluid vectoring but, in practice, it operates just like the torque-vectoring systems offered on high-end electric supercars.
"We've got mixed braking, the fluid system actually operates as a brake as well," Wheeler says, asked where the brakes would sit on a car with motors in its wheel hubs.
Using braking energy to get going faster
As with regenerative braking systems on electric vehicles, the Azaris can harvest energy under deceleration and store it, but it goes about it slightly differently.
"What we'll do next is accumulators," Wheeler explains.
"The ability to put fluid accumulators, so nitrogen accumulators, in this sort of a system is again exceptional in terms of its functionality.
"You can store energy fast in an accumulator, and then it's able to be released at quite a rapid rate, far beyond battery accumulators."
After storing the energy created under heavy braking, for example, the right kind of accumulator can then provide a power boost with intensity "far beyond any battery accumulator" when you next accelerate hard.
The relevance of that tech depends on the application. Wheeler references a DARPA project called Ground X, which is calling for a vehicle capable of launching, stopping and diving quickly, using in-wheel motors.
Because it's able to store energy and release it more quickly, he says the fluid technology is better suited than pure-electric power. Although those requirements aren't necessarily aligned with what the average driver wants, there are potential benefits on offer from fluid motors that can't be replicated by other power sources.
Locally designed, locally built
With the motors nested within the wheels, the Ferox design team has developed a new rocker suspension system. When we say developed, we mean it: the Azaris actually exists in real life, and it actually drives.
Want one? The company is willing to talk with you, but no promises.
There are two 'DNA arms' protruding from the core of the Azaris, each holding two wheels on a rocker arm. They're designed to be strong and light, and are themselves attached to the back of the passenger cabin. Transmission lines for the fluid motors are hidden inside, away from dust, dirt and salt.
"The rocker suspension... literally pivots. It's a really cool sensation," says Wheeler.
"It was going over the track on the way in, and [the track has] got this undulation through it... usually in a normal vehicle you feel the suspension working to try keep the wheels on the ground, but as it hits each of the ridges you get that energy translate up the suspension, into the chassis and you can't help but get the bounciness in the vehicle.
"This thing was just surfing it," he went on. "It just tracks those peaks and troughs like it's surfing a wave."
Wheeler describes the sensation as "brand new", and says it's "very, very cool" in the real world. We're already angling for a drive to find out what that feels like.
"The very early tests, it's really cool to see, to experience, a different feeling," he says.
Parts like the DNA arm aren't easy to source from regular suppliers, which is why Ferox is building the majority of components in-house.
There aren't any off-the-shelf connectors or hoses designed to work with the fluid drive system, for example, forcing the team to develop and design its own connectors and piping.
Take the piping. It's an in-house coaxial design, with fluid running at high pressure through an internal section and low pressure through the external segment.
Not only does the setup remove the need for separate high- and low-pressure cables, it's designed to make high-pressure transmission safer by encasing it in an extra layer of cabling/fluid.
What's going to break?
Given it's still early in the development process and fluid motors are still something of an unknown quantity, I'm curious about points of weakness. What's likely to go wrong?
According to Wheeler, his development team is still trying to work that out, but quality core components are – obviously – key.
"These being an early piece of technology, it needs thousands of hours of testing," he explains.
"We'll uncover some of that as we move forward, but probably most of it would surround materials and potentially the breakages or wear-and-tear. None of those are overly concerning to us, because in that process you uncover what materials would be better, what build process would be better, and how do you go about it."
The overwhelming sense from our interview, which spanned more than an hour, was that it's still early days for this technology, and the team is constantly beavering away to better understand what works and what doesn't.
Wheeler talks about trying to use a Subaru boxer engine in place of the BMW R1200 GS unit, before changing course because it was just fiendishly complex to integrate, for example.
There's still a lot of learning to be done, which means testing is focused on "vehicle survivability" – in other words, not breaking the damn thing. Despite that, the team is making good progress.
"So far, with testing, the system works really well," Wheeler says, suggesting there aren't any "leakages or that sort of thing" in the fluid system.
"It runs really smoothly, efficiently. It's got instant startup torque – what I mean by that is, it's got a flat torque curve just like an electric motor does... so as soon as you start to accelerate, it's met with smoothness and acceleration of the fluid operating system," he explains, taking a cheeky swipe at conventional hydraulics on the way through.
"We actually had someone, one of the workers, has done all sorts of hydraulic vehicles along the way. He said 'I've never seen something that runs on fluids move like that', because it's just so different."
Great, where do I sign?
Want an Azaris? You're hard out of luck... sort of.
"I would consider doing a limited-run build," Wheeler says, "as a collectors piece, a moving art piece where no two are finished the same."
"If we did that, then what I'd do is create version two. We'd upgrade some of the things, and I think part of that version would be electric-fluid [instead of motorbike engine-fluid] and then we'd seek, obviously, who's happy to collaborate with us to supply the system."
All the details on the concept have been considered. The shimmering blue paint was developed alongside PPG specifically for the Azaris, while the prism-focused design of the headlights makes them look like expensive pieces of jewellery.
The criss-crossing shape of the DNA arms is complex and pretty, while the BMW engine has been artfully integrated into the chassis. It's just a design that makes you go 'wow', a fact in which Wheeler revels.
It wouldn't be cheap, though, with a price somewhere in the realm of $500k. Everything is hand-built, of course, which makes the production process slow and costly.
That money would be used to further develop the Azaris concept, according to Wheeler, with the goal of making version two (or should that be 2.0) a "next-level" take on the formula. Rather than series production, the Ferox team is trying to shine a light on what its tech could do when further explored, and searching for new partners to help with the process.
Theoretically, the fluid motors could be plugged into a conventional car, bus or truck, but Wheeler is hoping Azaris will create a broader conversation about them facilitating new, interesting, and capable vehicles, the likes of which simply aren't possible in 2018.
"You could give a fluid operating system, and our technology, to somebody – but would they execute it as well as what it could be?" he asks, explaining why Ferox bothered developing a concept car from the ground up.
The company has other ideas about how a fluid operating system-based vehicle could look. The company's ANT concept has a novel swing arm suspension and motor setup to the Azaris, but packs the ability to translate from a 'necessities transporter' to a remote-piloted vehicle tailored for disaster relief. It's pictured above.
"It'd be so sad... for [the fluid system] to be pulled out and plugged into something that is limited in its physical characteristics. We need to go beyond that, to push, and that's what we've tried to say," Wheeler muses, prodded on where he wants the technology to go.
"Let's go past that, and really look at what we could do if we free up the wheels and start to reimagine things."
Click on the images for a gallery of photos by Easton Chang.