Mike and Maaike, the San Francisco design firm responsible for the a number of popular designs, including the Xbox 360, the Google Phone, and a really neat project called Juxtaposed: Religion, have recently released a design concept for an automated car they’re calling the “Autonomobile.” While searching for a new car, they realized that despite advances in safety, efficiency, and manufacturing, the driving experience remains largely the same today as it did 50 years ago.
In thinking about how to design a new kind of car, they decided that they needed to break the trend of merely “restyling” cars, and instead rethink them entirely. During office discussions, it quickly became apparent that most people don’t like the act of driving. The design for the Autonomobile (ATNMBL) grew out of this preference, and focused on the human aspect of the commute. Most people would rather relax and watch TV or socialize than spend that time behind the wheel.
The ATNMBL features a large, standing-height, glass-walled room with wraparound seating for seven, a center table, and an entertainment center/bar. The automated driving system can be controlled by voice, or through the entertainment center or mobile phone.
I highly recommend checking out Mike and Maaike’s website for more information and photos, but the two articles I found on the project proved to be just as informative, and provide something more: the first thing you notice upon scrolling down to the end of the article on either Core 77 or Dezeen, is how controversial an idea this is. These articles have only been online for three or four days, but each have around 30 comments, some of which are quite long. And the opinions are surprisingly diverse. Some people absolutely love the idea, and can’t wait until it materializes. Other people are adamantly opposed to the idea, usually because they love the act of driving. Then there are the engineering criticisms, that it isn’t aerodynamic, that it doesn’t have room for all the necessary technology, etc.
I wanted to post this project because I don’t think it’s really about the design itself. The prolificacy of comments should be indication enough that this is a provocative idea and one that, even if it isn’t breaking new ground, is at least bringing certain ideas back to the forefront of design. The paragraph that caught my attention the most was this one from Mike and Maaike: “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 cannot afford to get stuck in a rut of outdated design. Design needs to be pushing the boundaries of technology and constantly reevaluating the intention behind each idea.
I think this has profound impact for the architectural world as well. Buildings have not lagged as far behind the design curve as automobiles have, and they have certainly enjoyed a surge of innovation over the last five or ten years (the Australian Leaf House being just one example), but there is still a long way for them to go. The most brilliant aspect of the ATNMBL design is that Mike and Maaike wiped traditional auto design off the table and started fresh with the goal of satisfying people’s physical and psychological desires. It’s fine to build buildings that appeal to our aesthetics, or that have a miniscule carbon footprint, but we also need architects and designers with the audacity to step back and examine the fundamental premise of conventional buildings with an eye toward human comfort and occupancy. I think we’re seeing this to some degree, but it’s a bigger challenge than most realize. Just because many people lust after luxury cars doesn’t mean that they are the pinnacle of personal transportation. That’s why I’m so appreciative of the ATNMBL: it forces us to step back and reevaluate what we really want from a “car.”
We need to look at this recent surge of (mostly green) innovation in architecture not as an anomalous episode, but as a move to a more provocative and iconoclastic mentality of design. Because even if you don’t like the ATNMBL, it makes you realize there’s something better out there.
(Pictures from Dezeen).