Everyone knows that automobiles are changing. The more curmudgeonly of us might even suspect that the glamor and freedom that once defined cars is fading fast. Heightening this paranoia is a design studio (via Core77) by Google smartphone designers Maaike Eversand and Mike Simonian depicting their vision for the future of cars: the Autonomobile. At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, Mike and Maaike came to the realization that “today’s car industry is brainwashed by its own car culture, with its obsession for speed, styling and fantasy. The car business has become one of repackaging, steering people’s focus towards style and a narrow definition of performance, not on our true needs.” And what, pray tell, are our true needs? “Most cars on the road today can go 120 mph. Why? The reality is that cars are mostly used at moderate speeds and for sitting in traffic. It’s time to look at performance in a new way.”
“During our first brainstorming session, an honest discussion revealed an intriguing and consistent desire: the desire not to drive. Sure, everyone wanted to get from A to B, but they’d just rather be doing something else while en route: talking to friends, sleeping, or, as our French intern Laure suggested: ‘I want to enjoy the view with a nice wine, some cheese and a baguette.'”
Which all sound like wonderful reasons to ride the train. Is it understandable that many would rather not drive due to urban congestion, monotonous commutes, and yes, the real presence of danger on each trip? Of course. Does this lead any but the most dedicated technophiles to conclude that “Humans are not meant to drive, nor should they have to”? One certainly hopes not.
Moreover, if that is the conclusion that one draws from the often-mundane world of commuting, why design cars at all? In fairness, the Mike and Maaike make it clear that their concept is meant to be driverless. The Autonomobile is, in essence, an electric lounge-on-wheels which can be summoned by your cellular phone (what if I’d rather eat cheese and baguette than use a cell phone?) and provides an “architectural space” for relaxing, socializing and (yup) getting drunk while it chauffers you around.
The problems with the concept are myriad, however. The “architectural space” is assymetrical and in other ways poorly suited for the aerodynamics of moving people around at any speed. Solar powered cars are a stretch, even for 2040. The “driverless technology” which they argue is well on its way is unexplained, and would likely be mandatory. Unless you want to (or your insurance lets you) drive in traffic made up of robots.
Of course, the Autonomobile is a concept, and meant to push the buttons of established “car people”. But it’s merely a provocative argument for an old concept: the chauffered limousine. Though wrapped in a thin coat of greenwash, the Autonocar is essentially a Jetsons vision of a world in which technology makes the joys of super-luxury available to every Joe Commuter Car. An electronic chauffer piloting a Saarinen-inspired condominium around the city of the future. Why not simply create a Civilian Chauffer Corps, and fight unemployment along with global warming and boring commutes?
Meanwhile, we still have to deal with the assumption that, in the future, nobody will want to drive. Ever. Certainly the Autonomobile doesn’t look like it could taste some brave manouever even if it wanted too. Why not, instead, imagine a car with comfortable appointments that could (hypothetically) be put on autopilot for designated “commuter routes” and still be a fun car to drive on the weekends and/or on automoton-free roads? The assumption that driving is always a chore forced upon humanity conveniently ignores the fact that one of the few forms of entertainment that hasn’t changed in 100 years (in both form and popularity) is driving.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of perspective. I happen to see cars as a source of joy and inspiration, while smartphones strike me as a higher-tech version of those leashes that parents put on their rambunctious kids during visits to the mall. One man’s enslaving symbol of drudgery is another man’s freeing symbol of independence and personality. Still, I get the feeling that in 40 years we might still be able to buy a telephone that simply makes and receives calls. A car that is designed to be driven and enjoyed? I’m no longer quite so optimistic.