August 31, 2019

In Praise of Actually Designed Cars

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I have never really been into cars.

It is nor­mal to not be inter­ested in cars. Most peo­ple are indif­fer­ent. Cars are a mode of transportation — that’s it. But, if you’ve been immersed in indus­trial design edu­ca­tion, you’ll find that basi­cally every­one around you is super into cars.

Oh look at the front lights on this car. Look at the curves and lines here. Yeah, not for me.

I’ve put some thought into why I’m the odd one out here. It mostly has to do me find­ing cars boring. Mod­ern design — Amer­i­can goal-ori­ented design — really drills down the phi­los­o­phy that design should serve a pur­pose or solve a prob­lem. Oth­er­wise, it’s just art or decoration.

And that’s how I look at cars. There is no story or goal. It’s just a shiny object. It’s also depressing, because car com­pa­nies make cheaper cars ugly on pur­pose. Imag­ine that; it’s gross.

2011 Nissan Cube, by Andrew Kim
2011 Nissan Cube, by Andrew Kim

But not all cars are bor­ing. I was first intro­duced to the Nis­san Cube while read­ing Andrew Kim’s spec­tac­u­lar (but defunct) blog. The Nis­san Cube actu­ally was designed and there’s a really cool story behind it.

Japan has a spe­cific tax bracket for small cars so peo­ple who own these tiny cars pay less in taxes. The Cube was designed to be a fam­ily car; it should fit par­ents and chil­dren, be comfortable to sit in, and should some­how fit inside this tiny car tax bracket.

2011 Nissan Cube, by Andrew Kim
2011 Nissan Cube, by Andrew Kim

And Nis­san suc­cess­fully pulled it off. They made a tiny car (it’s kinda cute), it fits a fam­i­ly, and it has sofa-style seat­ing. And it fits within the dimen­sions for the tax bracket.

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My most favorite car, how­ev­er, is the Waymo Fire­fly. The Fire­fly is a self­-­driv­ing car pro­to­type made by Waymo (Google). It was intro­duced and demoed in 2014, and it’s entirely unconventional.

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There’s no steer­ing wheel or the two-row seat­ing. Instead, the inte­rior is just soft­-­like seat­ing in a half cir­cle. Remem­ber, no one needs to drive this so the legacy car inte­rior can be 100% redesigned.

But, the most inter­est­ing part lies on the outside.

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New tech­nol­ogy can be intim­i­dat­ing and scary. New tech­nol­ogy that involves the safety of you and your fam­ily is even more scary. Peo­ple don’t trust self­-­driv­ing cars. What if an algo­rithm or a bug kills your daughter?

The Fire­fly was designed to make self­-­driv­ing cars pleas­ant and friend­ly. It has a face. It’s very cute. Every­thing is round, and you just want to hug it.

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If you look at other cars like the Tes­la, they look very sci­ence fic­tion. They’re space lasers and sharp lines. That’s cool, that will attract money from nerds, but maybe some­thing that looks like a prop from Age of Ultronshould­n’t be the face of AI and self-driving cars.

I can’t gush enough about the Fire­fly. It takes a lot of courage to make some­thing entirely new and I’m sure there are lots of peo­ple who scoffed at the design. One of my friends who loves car design hates the Fire­fly. He thinks it looks ridicu­lous. He even sees a Hitler mustache.

Sure, your opin­ion is as valid as mine, but the Fire­fly has the best design ratio­nale. It has a story and it has a pur­pose. It’s not just a sexy shell designed to excite rich old men.

But sad­ly, like most sto­ries, this one ends in tragedy. The Fire­fly was retired a few years after it was shown off. Google decided that they should­n’t make their own cars. They should just part­ner with car mak­ers and sell self­-­driv­ing car tech instead. It makes sense busi­ness-­wise, but it’s a tragedy for well-de­signed cars nonetheless.

So what’s next? I wait for the next actu­ally designed car. It won’t be long, I hope.

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