Trying to Make Cars Cool Again

At the most recent Detroit auto show, the strangest concept car on display was Toyota’s Fun-Vii, a gleaming black wedge that’s completely covered by giant touch screens that can be illuminated at will. Tellingly, Toyota called it “a smartphone on wheels,” describing it as part of a “social network” of friendly drivers (“Vii” stands for “Vehicle, interactive, internet”). The Fun-Vii is living proof that nothing worries automakers more than the mounting evidence that cars are no longer cool. The smartphone has replaced the automobile in teen dreams. Surveys suggest that “millennials” regard the car as a tired, twentieth-century mechanical device that’s out of place in a twenty-first-century electronic world, where it creates nothing more than congestion and pollution. The myths of the open road embodied by American Graffiti and Beach Boys songs are fading.

No wonder car companies’ sales pitches are based less on horsepower (or even the high fuel efficiency of hybrids or electrics) and more on digital interfaces. It’s no accident that the names automakers pick for electronic information systems sound like wannabe Apple products or Web start-ups: Chrysler has UConnect, Chevrolet has MyLink, and Ford has Sync with MyFord Touch. Several companies are taking a more subtle approach to rebranding the car, presenting it as a digital device that, like the smartphone, is already networked and ready to play its role as a good citizen of the urban future. Audi, BMW, and GM have all sponsored programs that use architects and designers to explore this gleaming new future (and, of course, the car’s role in it). Carmakers have always done this—think GM, Norman Bel Geddes, and the Futurama exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair—but, this time around, the pitch feels somewhat fuzzier.

Ironically, just as the car has lost its luster with the tech-savvy young, more and more cars have become digital devices that are linked to the Internet for navigation, entertainment, and security. But in automakers’ expansive, designer visions of the future, self-driving cars share the restricted spaces of twenty-first-century megacities with pedestrians and bicycles; the renderings are like airbrushed scenes from Blade Runner.

Audi rolled out its A2 concept car at Design Miami in December. Designed for the slow speeds of a congested city, the A2 sports a contin-uous band of pulsing lights across its short, squat body. It was displayed in a futuristic street scene, designed by the architect Bjarke Ingels, in which the pavement was embedded with sensors and transmitters. “The street becomes a digital surface,” Ingels explained. “It is a vision of a city that blurs the lines between roads, sidewalks, and city squares.” In Miami, this network was represented by LEDs; pink circles on the floor signified the “protective electronic bubble” around each pedestrian.

Ingels’s scheme was developed two years ago as part of the company’s Urban Initiative program, which invited designers, planners, and academics to rethink the future of the city. The company sponsored a juried competition for the Audi Urban Future Award 2010, which called on designers to imagine cars and cities for the year 2030, and included ideas from Alison Brooks Architects, Cloud 9, Diller Scofido + Renfro, and Standardarchitecture. The winning scheme (and recipient of a 100,000 euro prize) was Jürgen Mayer H.’s. He envisioned an even more radical take on networked vehicles, with seamless digital linkups that made streets faster and more efficient. Thanks to vehicle sharing, traffic in the future is “a constant flow,” Mayer H. claimed. “No more need for parked vehicles. Pedestrian areas regain their lost space from cars.” Of course, this isn’t the first time that we’ve been promised a traffic-free future. The project’s renderings, curiously, showed only a handful of cars on the streets (like, say, 1930, rather than 2030).

The competition was followed up by the Audi Urban Future Summit in Frankfurt last fall. The company’s CEO, Rupert Stadler, opened the event, which brought together some 500 sociologists, scientists, and architects, including Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen. Stadler then got to listen to repeated attacks on the automobile’s urban and environmental impacts. The comparison between networked cars and smartphones came up often. “Mobility needs to find its Apple,” said the futurist Charles Leadbeater. “But Audi, I am afraid, is Nokia.”

BMW’s answer to the Audi A2 is the i3, or the Megacity car, an electric vehicle made of carbon fiber. Its dark glass hides taillights and other LED markings, which, set deep inside, are invisible until switched on, like a smartphone’s home screen. Part of a new BMW sub-brand called “i,” the i3 combines ribbonlike shapes with windows that extend low into the body, allowing fuller views of the street. The “i” cars will feature ownership arrangements that mimic recent bicycle-sharing initiatives. The company even set up a venture-capital arm to support the new brand. BMW i Ventures has invested in MyCityWay, a maker of smartphone apps; Park At My House, a parking sharing site; and DriveNow, a one-way car-sharing system (the first version of the system partnered BMW, its Mini brand, and the car-rental firm Sixt, and used a smartphone app to locate cars deployed on city streets.)

The i3 literally shares a material with the company’s BMW Guggenheim pavilion. Carbon fiber was used for the temporary venue, where a series of discussions on the future of the city are being held. Described by the company as “part urban think tank, part community center and public gathering space,” the first BMW Guggenheim Lab pavilion, an open-air building designed by the Japanese firm Atelier Bow-Wow, debuted last summer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The space hosted a steady schedule of lectures, panel discussions, films, and other events, and took on a social life as well. At the end of its run, in October, the building was taken down; it will show up next in Berlin in May and then move to Mumbai. The Guggenheim plans to mount a show on the Lab’s results next year, and the process will be repeated two more times, with two other buildings, themes, and itineraries, in a program running through 2016.

Surprisingly, the most radical vision of the city car of the future comes from General Motors, which has already demonstrated a system of vehicle sharing that goes well beyond BMW’s. First shown at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, the EN-V (short for “Electric Networked Vehicles”) concept is as cute as a pastel smartphone aimed at 13-year-olds. The two-wheeled, two-seat vehicle resembles a space pod (or an oversize baby stroller); its top speed is 25 miles per hour. The concept vehicle, which looks like Wall-E, the Pixar movie robot, can drive itself and avoid collisions.

Software for networking the EN-Vs evolved from the late William J. Mitchell’s MIT Media Lab City Car project, which GM sponsored for two years. Recently, GM announced that the second generation of the EN-V would be a Chevrolet—the brand the company is currently seeking to establish in Asia. Chris Borroni-Bird, GM’s director of advanced technology vehicle concepts, is leading discussions with the “eco-city” of Tianjin, China, regarding the deployment of the next-generation EN-V.

GM now sells more cars in China than in the United States. It’s conceivable that millions of young Chinese may be as inspired by the EN-V as Americans were by the automotive future laid out at the 1939 World’s Fair. But they might want to be careful what they wish for: Bel Geddes’s vision of the future was realized in a nationwide system of highways from which our cities are still trying to recover. And with an urban traffic jam as the salient image of today’s megacity, it’s hard to imagine any rebranding of the automobile that will convince the young that cars are an essential part of their future.

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