Q&A: Industrial Designer Don Norman on the Future of Cars

The legendary (and altogether charming) industrial designer Don Norman offers some fascinating insights into the future of cars and urban mobility.

For my recent story on BMW’s new i-3 electric car, I interviewed a number of transportation experts, including the legendary (and altogether charming) industrial designer Don Norman, who as it turned out currently serves as a consultant to the German automaker. Norman, the author of eight books and more academic papers than even he can count, was limited in what he could talk about concerning his client, but he did offer some fascinating insights into the future of cars and urban mobility:

Martin C. Pedersen: You consult for a number of companies, including BMW. What are you working on these days?

Don Norman: Obviously, I’m not allowed to talk a lot about what I do for BMW, but I can say that I’m working on electric vehicles with them, mostly in Munich, and a little bit in Mountain View, California, where they have a technology center. We’re working on a whole bunch of concepts. They’re also pulling me into issues involving today’s vehicles. I’ll tell you one of the big issues that they’re faced with—and it’s not a secret. All of the companies have this problem: cars are getting too complex. People can’t figure them out. I did a review for one of the car magazines. They brought a Ford to my house with the new Microsoft control system. We sat and reviewed it. It was overwhelming. We couldn’t figure out how to get half of the stuff to work. The same goes with BMW. They loaned me a new 5-series car. The guy sits down with me and we go over every single component of the car. Everything seemed sensible and straightforward, but it took between 30 and 40 minutes. When he left, I couldn’t remember anything. In fact I couldn’t even start the engine.

MCP: Your role, as they keep cramming more technology into these cars, is to help simplify them?

DN: We’re looking at a lot of things. The electric vehicle (EV) raises special questions. One of the main issues is range anxiety. BMW launched the Mini Cooper series two years ago. They produced 500 electric models and they asked UC Davis to do a study. Most of the drivers ended up loving the car. They had all sorts of concerns that turned out not to be true, especially about range.

MCP: So, are EVs the inevitable way of the future?

DN: Electric cars are an inevitable way for the future. I think that we’re going to end up with a mix of cars. There are still people who think that the eventual car is a hydrogen fuel cell. BMW pushed fuel cells for a while, and then I stopped hearing about them. The last time I was in Munich, just a few weeks ago, I asked, “So the fuel cell is dead, right?” They said, “No, no, no! We intend to bring out a fuel cell car. It’s coming.”

MCP: What’s interesting about the BMW’s i-series is the urban angle. They’re looking at it from a systems approach, from parking to hooking up with mass transit, to renting a bike. Are you involved with those issues?

DN: Yes, that’s part of what we’re looking at. But we have some other ideas to make you think of EVs in new ways. We’re looking more at lifestyle. It’s about more than mobility. It’s broader than that. They went to great extremes to create a whole new brand and they made the design of the car completely unlike anything BMW had ever done, because they’re trying to make the statement that this is a very different experience.

MCP: You’ve written a lot about the emotional connection between our objects and us. Huge amounts of mythology have grown up around cars, especially in America. When BMW starts changing ownership models, how will that affect our emotional connection to cars?

DN: That’s going to be a long haul. In most countries, the car has become a very important family possession. People are attached to them. They become personalized in almost trivial ways: it has my favorite music in it, I pack an extra shirt, a raincoat or an umbrella. The glove compartment is a sort of miscellaneous personality test. So I’m not sure how we’re going to make that transition. People who live in big cities often don’t have cars, but it’s painful for people who’ve always had a car to move to a big city and give it up.

MCP: That might not be true for younger people, who might want to experience cars without owning them.

DN: These arrangements are great for single people and business people in the city. It’s going to be much harder for families to get used to this. Most American families own two cars. And maybe that’s what the answer will be. We’ll have one electric for short trips and the other will be for long trips.

MCP: Now the holy grail for all this technology is the self driving car. Is BMW working on that as well?

DN: Everybody is. There isn’t a single major automobile manufacturer that doesn’t have a self-driving car. BMW has self-driving cars. I saw one. The real issue there is they’re not 100% reliable and the companies are scared to death of legal issues. Everybody says, “Oh, look at Google, their car has done hundreds of thousands of miles with no accidents.” But that vehicle has about $100,000 worth of equipment in it, just for the self driving part. The laser scanner is essential to its success, and no commercial automaker can afford to put it in.

MCP: For some people a self-driving car is going to be a great thing. Others love driving.

DN: I wrote a book called The Design of Future Things. To a large extent it’s about automation coming into the home, but I also talk about driving. Today’s cars are a bit like a horse and a ride. The horse is actually quite capable of doing it all by themselves, so the rider is sort of giving advice to the horse. Occasionally the horse would do something it wouldn’t otherwise want to do, maybe stop, but mainly it’s touting a high level of guidance. But is it really fun to drive a car? For me it is, but not always. Not through heavy traffic. Is it fun to ride a horse? For people who are horseback riders, they love it. How do they ride horses? They have a special place to go in the country where the horses are. I predict that’s what’ll happen to the car. You’ll have your little automatic cars—they may be shared, or owned by you—but they’ll be completely automated. On the weekends, you’ll go off to the track, get in a car, and have fun.

Categories: Design