I took a road trip this past weekend in a Mini CooperS, hardtop four-door. When I told my wife which car we (including our daughter) would be rolling with, she was pretty hyped. “Oh, wow, I love Minis.” I asked her why. “I love the way they look for one thing.” My daughter, who really couldn’t care less about cars, has, in spite of this, developed a taste for what she thinks looks good in a car. She likes the Mini. And when we stopped for gas, she said, “Dad, that’s a nice-looking car.” She wasn’t talking about the Mini just then, but about a late-’50s Chevy Nomad wagon. Mint. Parked over in the corner of the lot. That’s good taste.
But I explained to her that she shouldn’t buy a car based on looks because she will be spending 99% of her time in a place where she can’t appreciate it: behind the wheel. The only design elements drivers can admire from where they sit are the interior ones. Exterior design, not as a reflection of function, but as pure aesthetic brand differentiation, is part of the irrational decision process, happening in the primitive areas of the mind that we use to identify friend and foe, and beautiful objects. The part of the brain that, I admit, probably determines 50% of the purchase decision.
If new car buyers were rational, half the cars on the road would be gathering dust in show rooms. I was having this conversation with my daughter around the time we were stuck, dead still, in a July 3rd traffic jam from absolute hell, somewhere north of Allentown. Literally, there were cars on the shoulder abandoned, out of gas. So at that moment I was less inclined than usual to entertain the aesthetic virtues of the car, since the only car I was actually fantasizing about just then was the Moeller Skycar. Too bad that particular machine never got past the prototype stage, sadly for humanity. In my daydream — and thank God for it, since I was staring at the back of a Grand Cherokee for two hours — we did a vertical takeoff and zoomed over the two-mile long standstill low enough to wave at the cars as we soared along by at a comfy 40 feet.
“When you are driving in a situation like this, every car pretty much looks like a lozenge full of suffering,” I said to her, probably not an appropriate thing to say to your kid. But, I explained to her, soon cars will be able to drive themselves, and when that happens, the “look” of a car will become, sadly, irrelevant. When cars are self-driving, exterior aesthetics will no longer matter. They will, for better or worse, become moving rooms, and considerations for purchase will be entirely about interior design, technological touchpoints, and personalization: how the vehicle connects to the world, how functional is the interior as a living space, and how it can be customized, and how the drive experience can be dialed in and out. Fully automatic really will mean fully automatic.
These kinds of design experiments have been going on already for some years, and the best place to see them is at the Tokyo Auto Show, methinks. Nissan was early with this with a vehicle that presaged the Cube, which is out of production, but would probably be a hot item if we had autonomous driving already.
Consider the Volkswagen Beetle. That was not an aesthetically pleasing car, but DDB was brilliant in marketing it for what it was. That “Think Small” campaign proves that if design as an effort to create something beautiful can’t stand up to a good campaign, it probably can’t stand up to a major change in what cars actually represent.
The Google prototype autonomous car is a self-driving, futuristic non- VW bug. “But,” you argue, “Tesla is building an autonomous car, and you can be sure, based on the things he’s build already, those won’t be no pregnant roller skates.” Eventually they will all pretty much become boxes, because if we reach that point of full autonomy in driving, what you will want will be less Tesla S, and more Chrysler Town and Country. And, honestly, you probably won’t want windows, either. What’s to look at? Who wants to look at a row of boxes when you can watch your flat-screen TV, since Mr. Roboto is driving?