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Embarking on an Easter Jeep Safari

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Drones and screen drive off-roading futures

For decades, Jeep enthusiasts from around the country have flocked to Moab, Utah, in early April for Easter Jeep Safari to celebrate off-roading, the one activity that has come to define the 75-year-old nameplate. The annual gathering is literally a one-week Jeep extravaganza featuring everything from classic Willys CJs to heavily modified models of the Wrangler Unlimited set against the breathtaking red-rock terrain that’s made Moab one of the preeminent adventure destinations in the world. But this year’s lineup also featured a couple of Jeeps that indicate a pivot toward new technology that could shape the future of the brand from screens to deployable drones.

Created in partnership with FCA’s performance parts brand, Mopar, the concepts include a mix of heavily modified production Jeeps along with a few reinterpretations of classic models intended to showcase the wide range of possibilities with the SUVs. Typically, it’s the wild and crazy Jeeps like the hotrod-inspired Quicksand, one of seven concepts unveiled this week, that generate most of the buzz.

One of the most interesting is the Jeep Safari, a futuristic-looking Wrangler Unlimited that features an instrument panel-mounted iPad in place of the current 6.5-inch touchscreen display currently available in a production Wrangler. The concept, which looks like something you’d see on a Moon-landing expedition more so than the towering cliffs in Moab, is also equipped with two deployable drones mounted on the roof.

Mark Allen, head of Jeep Design, said the Safari concept is aimed at really stretching the idea of technology in a Wrangler to explore new ways the brand might be able to appeal to future Jeep buyers.

“The consumer demands more every year, electronics packages, entertainment units, user-experience,” says Allen. “I don’t think we can put a screen big enough in a vehicle right now.”

One of the clearest signs of that evolution in technology, showcased in Moab, was in the contrast between a 2017 Grand Cherokee and the Jeep Grand One concept, a modified 1993 version of the midsize family SUV done as part of this year’s 25th Anniversary of Grand Cherokee.

“That ‘93 Grand Cherokee has a cassette player. And right now, we’re wondering when are we going to build our last CD player, a technology that I saw the birth and death of. And then we’ve seen it bleed into the rear seats. It’s about entertaining the kids in the back. That future consumer demands to be entertained. So, we have to put thinks back their like TVs and connectivity packages that they’re are able to control,” says Allen.

Allen points to the drones on the Safari concept as one example of how Jeep is exploring more innovative ways to appeal to those new consumers, as a feature that enables the rear occupants to operate the devices to scout the trial ahead with the potential capabilities of displaying the drones’ view on in-vehicle-mounted iPads.

Another one of the Easter Jeep Safari concepts called the Luminator features an infrared laser system capable of detecting wildlife in the distance developed in collaboration with Automotive Lighting. The Lunimator is also equipped with a roof-mounted solar panel, a drone landing pad with lighted drone, and a capacitive touch interactive display on the driver’s side rear window linked to GPS and internet services.

Todd Beddick, head of Mopar Accessory and Performance, says a lot of the lighting innovation featured on the Luminator grew out of cutting-edge tech trends being applied to everyday road vehicles.

“Everyone that likes to modify their cars now are not the same as they were back in the day with all of the general technology that is now available in the car. So, the question is, how do we take some of that technology that is on the very verge of high-tech that is being implemented now and adapt that to the off-road life in terms of capabilities,” says Beddick.

Bill Grabowski, director of Advanced Lighting for FCA’s Automotive Lighting, says much of the technology being explored for off-road capabilities could be used to develop new lighting innovations for everyday vehicle usage as well.

Still, Allen says Jeep faces a unique challenge when trying to meet the growing demand for more technology, without alienating it long-standing core consumers — especially as it relates to the Wrangler.

“When you talk about putting technology suites in a Grand Cherokee, no problem. But in a Wrangler the conversation changes inside to ‘Is that right for Wrangler? To do something very that technical?’ But the (general) customer seems to want more technology,” says Allen. “What I’m trying to do is cater to those quiet voices who really do want something more technical-savvy and less traditional.”

Allen is quick to dismiss the idea of calling the Safari a future Wrangler as the company prepares to launch a totally new model of its iconic Jeep this year. However, it’s clear that the concept will play an important role in how Jeep approaches technology down the road.

“The Quicksand is cool. But that’s the one I’m going to be really interested in getting feedback on, seeing who’s interested in,” says Allen, eyeing the Safari, covered in red dust from our day of off-roading. “It will definitely effect a future Wrangler, in some weird way.”

Photography by Marcus Amick for The Verge