By on July 7, 2009

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.

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34 Comments on “Google Phone Designers Present The Autonomobile...”

  • avatar

    At the risk of being banned, can I ask if that thing is an Obamamobile or a Pelosikar?

  • avatar
    Cole Trickle

    So I can take my magic canvas car to the airport and ride a flying pig all the way to the beach on the south pole where all that nasty ice used to be and only burn 3 ears of corn the whole trip?!? Can’t wait!

  • avatar

    We have to understand that the value of our activities is being challenged because of energy and crowding obstacles.

    If we want to drive, then yes, there will be a market for SOME variant of driving in the future. Just because we can be chauffered doesn’t mean we will have to. If there is a market, there will always be Miatas (lord knows I will never give up mine).

    However, if we just want to be transported to work in our own private space, what’s required to make that happen? Certainly not driver involvement. Driving is fun but it isn’t REQUIRED with today’s technology. So Google did what any good busines does: it boiled down the objective of the activity to the most essential value-adds. Throw everything else away, including the added costs of unused performance and interfaces. And what’s left doesn’t require the manufacturing capability of some crusty old car company.

    As for the activities-besides-driving, why not take back that 90 minutes of daily stress? Driving for pleasure is one thing, but a stressful commute is something we’d all rather not have.

    Forget about all technological hurdles. What if someone said, “here’s your own private pod for daily automated commutes. You will no longer be out of touch with your family or your work, whichever you choose. If you wish, your life will no longer be on hold while you drive. You can catch up on Lost or on old friends. You can improve your health.” Suddenly your day is longer. Do with it whatever you will.

    As for the people who wish phones just made calls, they’re closer than they realize to Google’s reason for the project. Think about it: if all cars/phones should do is transport you/make calls, then isn’t an automated commuter pod/voice phone logical?

  • avatar

    Honestly, they raise interesting points. Yes, we’re pistonheads and love to drive. But frankly, if I could play Forza 2 while gliding to work as opposed to risking my life dodging cellphone-toting moms in SUVs, and only drive on the week-ends, for FUN, I wouldn’t mind one bit.
    I truly think the pleasure and utility aspect of cars could be separated. The main issue in that case is not the resistance of the pistonheads, but that of people buying cars as status symbols (i.e. a LOT of people). Are most BMWs driven hard and fast (or corvettes, for that matter)? Heck no.
    Generation Y does not see cars as status symbols as much, as they are replaced by cellphones, notebooks, and music players for that. Will this fact remain when the kids have 20 grand to spend on a status symbol? We’ll see.

    EDIT: I typed at the same time than Bryanska. Good post sir!

  • avatar

    “During our first brainstorming session, an honest discussion revealed an intriguing and consistent desire: the desire not to drive.”

    Um… this “brainstorming session…” was it comprised of mainly Camry drivers?

  • avatar


    You have an interesting definition of freedom. You also have an interesting idea about being challenged, since the two examples you bring up are items only because of government interference with how people should be able to live.

    It’s a bunch of US enviro-weenies and socialists that are the cause of your two challenges, and least in the US. Though I would say it is true in other places too.

    As to your idea of driving, it must be nice to live where you do, where I live I drive for business, and speed, power, and size are issues for me. If you want to be plugged in to a cell phone your whole life, what a boring existence you lead. Please take the train.

  • avatar
    Jonathan I. Locker

    When my daughter was born in November, I began to think about all the things she would learn with me cheering her on. How to crawl, how to walk, how to play soccer (or any other sport), how to read, how to ride a bike, how to drive…wait.

    In 16 years will she have to learn how to drive?

    Computers double in computing power every 18 months. So in 16 years, computers will have doubled in computing power about 10 times, or be 1024 times more powerful than they are today, or three orders of magnitude.

    To put that in perspective, what would take a modern computer over 16 minutes to crunch, would in 16 years take one second!

    There is no way that cars won’t be driving themselves on certain routes, if not all routes, in 16 years.

    So will she HAVE to learn how to drive. Probably not.

    Will I teach her how to hit the apex of a curve, or how to squeal those tires? Absolutely.

  • avatar

    I think I read about this in the March 1952 edition of Popular Mechanics.

  • avatar

    JK, whether we like it or not drivers are being challenged with oil prices and enviro-nuts. I don’t cotton to it any more than you do, but the societal pressure on “the car” only served as a catalyst for the Google project. With technology accelerating as it is, it was only a matter of time before someone dissected the car into its basic dichotomies: pleasure vs. utility, driving vs. chauffering. My point is, you can have either or both.

    And what I prefer to do with my “mobile device” (since the term cell phone is growing obsolete) is join a more productive, untethered future. Of course, if all we’re going to do is to flame each other’s lifestyles, then we’ll get nowhere.

    In the end, the whole Google experiment is about individual freedom anyway: strip away the things that prevent us from more automotive choice. if you want more speed, power and size – you can have it! Chances are many people agree, and are willing to pay for it too. Your pod can be bigger and faster with a manual mode and no electronics. I’ll kick back in my wired car and use the time to make money, while never again dealing with road-ragers who flame behind anonymous, consequence-proof armor.

  • avatar

    This strikes me as another case of a designer trying to solve a software problem with pictures.

    Not wanting to drive just means that we need autopilots for our cars that are significantly more advanced then what we have available today. Autopilots are just software programs that will likely make use of the same kinds of sensors and controls that we have today.

    Now it’s true that if we had this solution, we could make our cars look like just about anything, including a glass box on wheels, but that’s not a very interesting solution.

    Desiging a car that looks like that doesn’t do anyone any good until someone designs the software that makes it possible. And once someone creates the software solution the design becomes trivial, or at least this design does.

  • avatar

    I personally can imagine us all being forced to drive the autonomobile — maybe not in my lifetime, but in my future children’s lifetime.

    I think one of the last bastions of nanylessness are the cheaper motorcycles and older cars. Even newer motorcycles have options for traction control & abs.

    I think I’ll hold onto both my bike (5 years old now) and current sports car just because of _how_ fun they are.

    As far as a commute, I have never in the last 5 years worked a job without flexible hours. At my current job I can typically come in between 6-9:30 am and leave between 2:30-7pm. I can almost always miss (or almost-miss) commute traffic so I can still enjoy the drive. (And before you ask, I can’t come in at 9:30 and leave at 2:30)

    Enjoying the drive = concentrating on the road with no distractions — no radio, no food, no cell phone, etc.

  • avatar

    “Enjoying the drive = concentrating on the road with no distractions — no radio, no food, no cell phone, etc.”

    You’ve just described what I experience while riding my motorcycle.

    The bike lives in the country where it provides fun-filled hours on winding two-lane roads. Ideal. I love my car, but I get to work on the subway.

  • avatar

    All that talk of “architectural space” in cars reminded me of the Top Gear spot where Clarkson turned the interior of a Benz into a rolling den complete with a woodstove and wingback chair.

  • avatar
    Matthew Danda

    This is just like aviation–no one flies their own plane to get around (except for die-hard enthusiasts). Driving is on the same path.

    Another barometer is the number of good driving computer games. I haven’t seen a really good one in years!! What are kids playing these days? I’ll tell you: everything BUT driving games!!

  • avatar

    If I were in that meeting, I’d look that French intern Laure directly in the eyes and tell her that she could drink wine and eat brie all she wants in my passenger seat while I’m driving. In fact, I’d heartily encourage it.

    Problem solved.

  • avatar

    This concept is not so far off. Masdar City — a new, built from the ground up city in the UAE — has plans for a “personal rapid transit system.” A google search will give lots of info on this huge, green, project. See for example slide 28 in this deck:

  • avatar

    If you do not want to drive, take public transportation.

    If you like to drive, own a car.

    Freedom of choice and free market economies are wonderful things (if we have them).


  • avatar

    Woody Allen called, and he wants his “Sleeper” prop back…

    I’m all for it, especially if it’s an alternative to a bus crowded with those nasty, disgusting Homo Sapiens.

  • avatar

    The Obamamobile folks do raise interesting points. Why do we need a 280hp Camry for our commuter, or 8000 pound SUVs?

    Still, this is a free country. Not one soccer mom was forced into that SUV. Sure, it was probably not the best decision, but freedom is not always about best decisions.

    I guess I’d rather have SUVs and 280hp Camrys on the road than be forced into whatever car is decreed upon me by the crooked, bribe-taking politicos in Washington.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I assume that at some point in the near future, the use of computer piloted vehicles will be mandatory on some highways. It is the only way to move large volumes of traffic long distances with minimal clearances.

  • avatar

    If you do not want to drive, take public transportation.

    If you like to drive, own a car.

    That’s why I’m moving to Europe. I’ll get a car (a fun-to-drive-yet-practical one, such as a GTI) for week-end escapades, and will enjoy public transportation for my commute. In NJ, there is NO WAY I can take public transportation to work. It’s simply impossible.

    Also, I find interesting that so many posters blame politicians, while the article is about an initiative by employees or ex-employees of Google, a private company, and a very successful one at that. Far more successful than car companies…

    And let’s face it, most humans are indeed poor drivers. That includes me. I’m a great driver (or so I think) but if I crash, that definition may change…

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Hopefully, and thankfully, I will no longer be alive when this day comes. Driving=freedom. Letting a computer system, linked to a master network, is so 1984, it ought to scare just about every sentient human.

    Call me a Luddite, if you will. I refuse to own a cell phone, mobile device, whatever the f_ck you want to call it….no tethers on me.

    Owning a car is the freedom to go whereever the roads are open….at the time of my choosing and without the government having any control.

    The Obama-mobile is the vehicle – pun intended- by which the fascists will gain control over who goes where, and when and how. Mark my words, you people who are letting this happen, or actively participating in it, are sheep leading yourselves to slavery in the expanding nanny-state.

    Seems like the social-scientific premise for Rush’s great song RED BARCETTA is on the horizon….

    They can have my Audi when they pry the keys from my cold, dead fingers…..

  • avatar

    Matthew Danda: Both the Forza series and the GT series are excelent racing simulators, and getting better all the time.

    Given my limited budget playing some Forza will give me a good racing fix in between the (long) stretches when I can’t get out and race for real.

  • avatar

    Reminds me of the electric car brigade. Imagine it’s 10 degrees F and overnight snow has left 8 inches of the fluffy white stuff everywhere. The wind’s blowing a gale. Gotta warm up the windshield for safety reasons and clear the driveway. Oops, the battery went dead before the journey began.

    I can just imagine software driving me to work in a telephone booth on wheels under these conditions, but a latte along the way would sure be nice. A view of the sides of a deep ditch would be agreeable as well. No work today!

    “Drive to Work Hands Free has encountered a problem and needs to close. Do you wish to send a report to Open Source Software? Yes? No? Send an ambulance to my coordinates.”

    In reality of course, teleportation will be the way to travel by 2050. These Google guys just aren’t thinking far enough ahead…..

  • avatar

    I think I saw this thing in Minority Report. As much as I enjoy driving, I’d rather be sitting in one things and letting it crawl through traffic for me (if traffic is still a problem in the future) rather than sit in a stiffly sprung, turret-like sports car, pumping the clutch with my left foot for 90 minutes on my way to somewhere.

  • avatar

    A quick glance at Google’s home page reveals the brilliant thinking behind this concept. The Google home page is a masterful design. It has an obvious purpose and an unambiguous interface. There is unobtrusive advertising (for Google), and a dash of whimsy for those who are feeling lucky. The search results page may offer sponsored advertising–again, very unobtrusively.

    So, well designed personal transportation that has a clear and simple purpose and an unambiguous interface along with a dash of whimsy on the side.

    Sign me up.

  • avatar

    @AKM (post #4) I like to get my driving and my utility together. As well as having opportunities to drive purely for pleasure.

    @Menno: It’s a Pelosikar. Obama once owned a Chrysler 300C, until he was outed for his muscle car after castigating the D-3 for building “bigger, faster cars.”

    (Pelosi is, by the way, the woman who has said essentially that enforcing immigration laws is un-American. In so saying, she’s tarring my brother and sister-in-law.)

    I think Mike and Maaike are simply elitist, and out of touch. I have a high school mate (years ago, we’re btw 35th and 40th reunions), a very successful, happy guy, who thought (at least until I got to him) that everyone should drive Toyota Echos, just like he does, to save on hydrocarbons. I think I finally convinced him that alot of people take great joy in driving, and that it was really unfair of him to want to take their fun away, just because he doesn’t see any fun in it. Yeah, I can well imagine people ensconced in google, coming up with an idea like this.

  • avatar

    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.

    C’mon, how can you look at a mini-van and write that with a straight face. The Autonomobile may be a reductio ad absurdum, but if you consider the number of drivers texting while driving, (or worse) the days of lusting after the ultimate driving machine or understanding the message in accept no substitutes are numbered; deal with it dude!

  • avatar

    Right on!
    Isn’t satisfaction a perception of the mind?
    Of course!
    So why not satisfaction via virtual reality?

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    I prefer the Star Trek transporter. Why waste time in transport?

    Scotty, three to beam up. Energize on my mark. Click.

  • avatar

    I see the autonomobile as an existential threat to manual driving and yet also unavoidable. You only need to look at the DARPA challenge to see that the technology is out there and being honed and to the vanillamobiles already so popular to see there is a demand. I have no doubt that computers and sensors will do a much better job of keeping occupants safe than humans, and this will be the death knell of driving on public roads. The good news is that the bar business will once again boom.

  • avatar

    I already own a daily to get me to work and a fun car for the weekend, so I’m better than half-sold on this notion already. And I quite like the idea that my tiresome commute could become even more hands-free [all the better to use those hands to caress a wine glass or maybe Laure’s thighs].

    What bothers me is that “chauffer” is the French verb to warm or excite something or someone. A chauffeUr is a noun describing a driver. Now I’m all for DIY gerunds, but Noah Webster’s vision of the future is entirely less satisfactory than that of Laure.

  • avatar

    Why leave the house at all? Need food? Phone it in! Telecommunte! Leave the rat race, traffic jam, cellphone toting SUV driving soccer Mom’s, and taxi drivers out in the rain.

    Adjust your climate controlled living space to just the right temperature, turn on your webcam for other human interaction – or not. Open a granola bar and a Red Bull, relax and enjoy your safe, secure, modern existance.

    Everything is at the touch of a button on your PC or phone including calling maintenance to change the bio filters to prevent the spread of germs.


  • avatar

    BTW – what I just did last weekend on my mobile device:

    – Looked up proper torque values for the transmission fill & drain plugs
    – Shot a video of the plug washer becaue it looked funny to me
    – Uploaded the video to YouTube
    – Started a post on the owner’s forum about my question, posted a link to the YouTube video so others could see and answer
    – Kicked back and did other repairs while the forum members contributed their thoughts
    – Checked the forum about 90 minutes later with my answer

    All this WITHOUT going in the house and taking off dirty shoes to use the living room PC, WITHOUT the bother of a Chilton manual or a meth-head auto parts vendor, WITHOUT the expense of a stealership…

    Go back to a voice-only phone? No way!

    The only thing a voice phone could do is see if the Pep Boys is open or set up a dealership appointment.

    I don’t feel “tethered” at all. Bring on the tech!

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