Either the Thunderbird or the Beetle had to go.
With a baby on the way and two vintage cars in our garage, one a red 1963 VW Ragtop Mike's owned since age 15 and the other a champagne 1963 Ford T-bird, a tough decision had to be made. One of them had to be replaced...
The year was 2006, and, believe it or not, these old-timers were pretty much the only cars we'd ever owned. With our purchase of a new car that winter, we made a 43 year leap in automotive technology overnight.
We quickly realized, however, that despite 43 years of automotive progress, with its advances in safety, efficiency, and manufacturing, the driving experience remains basically the same as it was in 1963.
After experiencing this somewhat disappointing time warp, we wondered how we could contribute a new point of view and perhaps spark more significant progress for the next 40 years.
The current climate gave us the final push--with the car industry lost, an urgent focus on global warming, awareness of oil dependency, and the economic down turn, the stars had aligned. It is time to sow seeds, to experiment. Armed with a small design studio, we set out to design a concept car in search of an optimistic new future. And it quickly became clear to us:
A shift must take place from styling cars to redefining them.
This year at the Detroit Auto Show, we expected the industry to shed some light on a confident path ahead. Instead, we were shown their usual speed demons, nostalgic muscle, and a few seemingly very last minute answers to the electric future. It dawned on us: 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.
Speed and "performance" have been the driving factors for car design, styling, and engineering for a century. 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."
It became obvious to us: Driving is like putting your life on hold. None of us liked the daily monotonous act of driving. After years of incessant advertising, we have subscribed to a false sense of freedom, the freedom to waste countless hours strapped behind the wheel.
Each day we are required to maneuver a heavy object through complex traffic and pedestrians, all the while trying to obey hundreds of obscure traffic laws in constant fear of sudden brake lights ahead, of making a wrong turn, of unpredictable drivers and police.
And did we mention the countless distractions along the way?
Inevitably, in these complex and stressful situations, humans will make mistakes. We were moved by the numbers: over 6 million car accidents and 43,000 highway fatalities in the US each year, 13,000 of them alcohol related. Our conclusion? Humans are not meant to drive, nor should they have to.
From Driving to Riding
Research revealed that self-driving cars, once a fantasy requiring an entirely new infrastructure, are now technologically possible, even inevitable. Savvy robotics are here and real. Advances in GPS, sophisticated sensors, and navigation databases will allow driverless vehicles to operate on the same roads we have today.
As with many robotic developments, the future of self-driving cars is being determined mostly by engineers and the military. Positive design visions are desperately needed if this technology (and other robotic technology) is to have a positive impact on society. We decided driverless technology would be the perfect starting point for our design exploration.
Not only will this technology save people millions of hours each year, it has the potential to virtually eliminate car accidents. Dismissing the need for extreme speed and acceleration as irrelevant, performance can be measured by time savings and safety instead. Inspired by this new outlook, it was to time to imagine what the driverless car for 2040 would look like...
A Different Approach to Car Design
It is pretty safe to say that every designer has a terrible urge to draw on any piece of paper they come across, and the most mindless thing to draw is the side view of a car. Resisting the typical car sketching formula (draw two large wheels and something cool in between), we felt a new approach to car design was needed.
We started with a series of experiments--collaging, dissecting, montaging--to help us see the object and the experience in a new light. By taking photos of existing cars and manipulating them, we created objects that are not driver-oriented but passenger-oriented.
Altering the proportions of these vehicles helped us create new archetypes. Covering the wheels communicated "electric", lowering the panels generated "train", tall windows are "bus". These experiments helped us decode the formula that makes a car a car in order to arrive at something new.
Collage: driverless rover
But that still wasn't enough. We also needed to redefine the experience. Through a series of montages, we visualized our dreams of the ultimate riding experience: a beautiful view with the addition of basic elements for riding comfortably: seat, floor, table, roof.
Montage: idealized ride through the country
Montage: the ideal commute
Thinking about what we really want to do in our cars
Thinking about cars as architectural spaces
Sketch: a space for living
After reviews, collages, sketches and full scale volume studies, we arrived at a direction: the vehicle would be designed from the inside out with elements influenced by architecture. It should offer living comfort, views, conversations, and social connectedness. Unencumbered by driving, the new vehicle should be a space for living.
We labeled the concept the ATNMBL.
Summoned by phone, your ATNMBL arrives. You enter from the curb side through an electric glass sliding door into a standing-height entryway. Upon entering, you are presented with a simple question: "Where can I take you?" There is no steering wheel, brake pedal or drivers seat.
If the interior feels familiar to you, it should. The wrap around seating arrangement is a direct reference to the typical living-room setting: a couch, side chair and low table. Up to seven riders are oriented towards each other and to the view outside through the large floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows on both sides.
Centrally oriented is a large flat display that features live trip information, maps, and entertainment. The display can slide up to reveal a bar behind. Yes, a bar. In a driverless vehicle, you can't drink and drive...but you can drink.
ANTMBL from above
A new and comprehensive sense of control is introduced through voice recognition and a touch screen remote (or one's personal phone), offering riders a wide range of trip planning, ride sharing and performance settings that can be very detailed for those who want elaborate control or extremely simple for those who would rather just relax and enjoy the ride.
From the outside, ATNMBL looks like micro-architecture. Large windows, a pitched roof and asymmetrical from every view, the concept is designed without any reference to automobiles of the past. Absent are the myriad of design details and tricks that car designers have perfected over the years: large wheels, fluid forms, aggressive stance, character lines and shiny trim.
Transition from one architectural space to another
In contrast to today's automobiles, where much of the car's space is reserved for the engine and drive train, the ATNMBL's mechanical components are densely packed and simplified, providing dramatically more interior space in a vehicle that is shorter than most cars on the road today.
Electric motors in each wheel provide all-wheel drive. Power is stored underneath the seating and floor with additional power provided by solar panels on the roof. Within a gridded pattern front and rear is an array of headlights, tail lights and sensors.
At last, we're ready to leave speed, styling and fantasy behind for a moment so we can enjoy the much more compelling benefits in store for us:
- accessibility for the young, the elderly and the disabled (no drivers licenses)
- saving hours each day by reclaiming our commute time
- no searching for parking (it will drop us off and park itself)
- cars that work for us (think autonomous grocery pickups, deliveries and car maintenance)
- cars that make money for us
- less congestion with increased carpooling and carsharing
- did we mention the bar?
- and most importantly, there will be far fewer fatalities and there will always be a designated driver.
We admit it, we miss our old T-bird. With its swing-away steering wheel, elegant stance and velvety ride, it was hard to part with it. But with 11 miles per gallon, the constant smell of gasoline in our house, and frequent trips to the mechanic, it was time to let go of the past to make room for a new future.
The need for efficient, affordable, zero-pollution cars is vital for the future of humanity and the planet but is obviously not the only problem to be solved. Think about it, 40 years from now, many of us will no longer be able to drive. But with a little bit of optimism and a newly inspired car industry, we may still have the freedom to enjoy the ride.
Mike and Maaike is an industrial design studio that takes an experimental approach to design, creating progressive solutions for high and low tech products, furniture, wearables, environments, and now vehicles. Maaike Evers is Dutch; Mike Simonian, Californian. Their distinct backgrounds and unique approach create strong conceptual foundations and a clear point of view. The studio, which has received recognition and awards from design publications and museums around the world, is based in San Francisco. They recently collaborated with Google to develop Android-based smart phones.