May 28 2014, 11:04am CDT | by Forbes
Since almost the dawn of the automobile age, our cars have maintained the same basic shape. Of course, a lot of this form followed function: Combustion-engine cars have a whole lot of moving parts, and the carriages need somewhere to stow all this machinery. These days, that typically means an engine in the front, a trunk for storage in the back, and a whole lot of cogs and gears in between.
But once you ditch the combustion engine, this calculus changes. When you move to a fully electric vehicle, you have no need for the trappings of car design that have been present since the Model T days. Indeed, tear apart at Tesla, and you’ll find that many of its physical similarities to a traditional vehicle are a design choice. No engine means that some have space for a second trunk in the front. Other EVs can be so quiet, that they actually use speakers to simulate the sound of a traditional car—both as a matter of safety (you want to hear these things coming), and as a way to keep drivers from feeling like they are playing with alien machinery.
Which brings us to the new prototype self-driving cars that Google announced on Tuesday. Previous driverless vehicles were basically retrofitted production vehicles, outfitted with the necessary machinery to navigate city streets without human assistance. These new vehicles were designed and built from the ground up to operate without a driver. As a result, they were able to dispense with much of the hardware that is required for humans to interface with their vehicles. That means no steering wheels, no brake or acceleration pedals, and a compact design that looks as much like Disney World people-mover as a Camry.
I find this encouraging for one simple reason: Even as new technologies such as electric drivetrains could allow car makers excessive amounts of freedom in the overall design of their products, there has been remarkably little experimentation in this regard. Car forms still follow the functions of decades past. Auto makers seem terrified of turning off users who are afraid of something that looks and feels too different from the cars they are already familiar with.
If Google’s novel designs catch on, I’m hopeful that other car manufacturers will follow suit, and experiment with designs that look to the future, instead of being stuck in the past. By building carriages that exploit and maximize a car’s tech-infused guts, you give these new insides the chance to really shine.
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