The Next Generation of the Automobile
Clockwise from top left: the GM/Segway PUMA concept, Tesla’s Model S, Tesla’s Roadster, and MIT Media Lab’s CityCar
As part of its excellent Cars, Culture and the City exhibit, the Museum of the City of New York brought together some of the keenest minds in automobile design last week to envision “The Next Generation of the Automobile.” Predictably, the discussion was almost entirely about sustainability and the electric vehicle. What nobody could agree upon was what this ideal sustainable automobile should look like.
Lawrence Burns, the co-author of Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century and the former vice president of R & D at General Motors, was there to represent the radical rethink faction. Burns was advocating solutions like the GM/ Segway PUMA concept and MIT Media Lab’s CityCar–compact personal-mobility vehicles that are optimized for driving and parking conditions in cities. The caveat: these vehicles look like futuristic pods, not cars. But Burns sees this as a design opportunity. In fact, new design concepts for the PUMA are being unveiled at GM’s pavilion at the Shanghai Expo.
People want cars that look like cars, not like travel pods from Minority Report, retorted Franz von Holzhausen, the chief designer at Tesla Motors. He held Tesla’s Roadster and Model S up as examples, screening a video where satisfied Roadster drivers told you how much they loved their cars. Holzhausen’s opinion was echoed by the automobile designer and journalist Bryan Thompson. Drawing upon his design of the Nissan Actic, Thompson chose to focus on the automobile as a social space, speaking of integrated Web 2.0 technology.
During the panel discussion, moderated by the automobile design expert Phil Patton—who also co-curated the Cars, Culture and the City exhibit—there were no real disagreements between the panelists on questions of charging infrastructure or fuel cell vs. electric cell. But when Burns said “Sustainability does not mean a trade-off on aesthetics,” and everyone on the panel nodded, it was clear that they were all nodding for different reasons. Burns meant, of course, that new technology and new concerns should be expressed by an entirely new kind of vehicle. But Tesla would be happier, it seems, if the next generation of the automobile didn’t look very different from this one.