Alison K. Lanier
Google’s endeavors to propel its consumers into the Star Trek age with, for instance, the newly-commercial Google Glass are yet again seeking to change how consumers see the world around them. This time, though, the company’s driverless car will be—fingers crossed—changing how the consumer moves through the Google-mapped world.
The car’s first public prototype design, as Wired noted in its review, can be affectionately described as “cuddly.” The car overcompensates for the anxieties of a nation so accustomed to being behind the wheel and in control with this in-your-face cuteness factor. The car, seen in the publicity photo, appears distinctly bubble-shaped, with the cheery, cartoonish grill giving the impression of a character from Pixar’s “Cars” that is overwhelmingly happy to see you, big-eyed and smiley.
A Little too Cutesy?
After self-parodying designs like Google Glass, the company should have already taken into account the potential for design to undermine the appeal of the product in the eyes of potential consumers. After all, the appeal of futuristic technology might very well be diminished for non-drivers for whom the bubbly car might feel more like stepping into a vintage Doctor Who episode, rather than a sleek ultramodern self-driving machine. Also, the car’s extra-cheeriness-with-cherries-on-top “face” may ultimately only contribute to the hesitation of customers, for whom the prospect of a self-directed car is as uncomfortable as it sounds.
Or that’s what Wired and other commentators lay at the doorstep of the little car with its uber-cutesy prototype. Some comparisons, by the likes of Wired, to early models of the iMac—with its bright colors and bulbous desktop form—pointed out that the design for that computer was “cute and cool.” The Google Car, they say, does well on that front. So much cute—maybe not enough cool?—that you “want to hug the thing and protect it from this cruel, cruel world.”
The super-cute, self-driving car is not really so different from the bubbly desktop model of the early iMac: it has the same bright, Mod-ish color scheme, the same simplicity and color-blocking, even the same general shape. One is not spectacularly more silly-looking than the other. Perhaps it is not quite the “blunt solution” to “deeper problems” in the car but simply a continuation of an evidently successful trend of creating novel tech that does not intimidate at first sight.
Fitting in on the Roads
“We definitely would like the vehicle to appear friendly,” Chris Urmson, head of the self-driving car project, told Recode. “When you look at the front grill of any car, there’s a lot of thought put into that shape and what kind of emotion it shows. Many of them look like faces. In our case we wanted to find something that’s very Googley. It’s friendly, it’s kind of cute. We hope it fits into neighborhoods.”
The aesthetic of the Google Car does not appear quite as otherworldly as the reviews make it out to be. The contour, though undoubtedly cartoonish to some degree, bears a not-insignificant resemblance to the 2014 Fiat 500e. The car would not look too spectacularly out of place on a road tomorrow—certainly odd, but no more Pixar or Martian like than a box-shaped Kia Soul.
A Positive Outlook on Human Laziness
Other reviews have been more favorable. MIT’s Tech Review sees the car as perfectly suited to the concept of human laziness. While Wired looks at the lost opportunity to make the most of what else you could be doing in your car while you aren’t driving it—the private vehicle becoming akin to riding public transport—pales against the Tech’s focus on the company’s sacrifice of any human involvement in driving itself.
“The idea was that the human drives onto the freeway, engages the system, [and] it takes them on the bulk of the trip—the boring part—and then they reengage,” Nathaniel Fairfield, a technical lead on the project said in his talk at the Embedded Vision Summit in late May.
But—ready for this—the steering wheel and the human-driver element on the cheery-looking little car were left out entirely. But this step was taken only when human drivers, after observation of the existing automated Lexus SUVs, were found to not be “trustworthy enough to be co-pilots to Google’s software,” the Tech reported.
“Humans are lazy,” Fairfield said at the summit. “People go from plausible suspicion to way overconfidence.”
As Forbes puts it, this “new prototype has no need for the trappings of a driverful past.” The two-seater will soon be put through its paces via test drives which, in all previous autonomous Google models, were test driven with human copilots. But, as Forbes reported, the test drives for this new model will truly be entirely autonomous.
One of the more concerning design issues, which was also noted by Wired a few days previous to their double-attack commentary on its design, was the issue that the car cannot navigate its way on uncharted roads.
According to Wired, in order for the Google Car to navigate the world’s roadways, “the world must first be mapped—in much greater detail than what Google has already done.”
As the New Yorker noted in November 2013, a self-driving Google car, while not unprecedented, definitely needs “sensors to guide them, computers to steer them, digital maps to follow.” No doubt these concerns, evident even from an outsider’s perspective last year when the project was beginning to build real, publicized steam, have long-since been addressed by the big brains at Google. And if anyone is going to map the world thoroughly enough for a robotic car to navigate, it’s a safe bet that Google would be the ones to do it.
The New Yorker stated that “Google’s goal isn’t to create a glorified concept car—a flashy idea that will never make it to the street—but a polished commercial product.” Google’s car exists, although it’s a prototype, in the public eye. It is well on its way to test driving itself around Mountain View, Calif.
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