Why Google's Goofy Little Self-Driving Car Is Almost A Design Triumph

Google just showed the world their new self-driving car, and it looks pretty much like a cross between an Isetta, Honda's Asimo robot, and a Koala. Matt, the Editor King, told me "our readers are going to hate it." Maybe. But, if you think about it, the design is brilliant. Well, almost brilliant.

The key thing to remember here is that what Google has made here is not a car. It's a robot. A robot who's primary mission is to take you from one place to another, within a very specific set of circumstances. Let's look at this little guy and I'll explain why I think they made good decisions here.

The first reaction anyone is likely to have to this thing is the acknowledgement that it's really fucking cute. It doesn't matter if you like cute or not — the point is, everyone can see it's cute. It has a face like a big friendly robot koala, its proportions are like a little cartoon car, and it makes you feel a little bit like how I'd imagine you'd feel next to a shy baby elephant or something like that.

And Google had a damn good reason for designing it like this. I'd even argue it was the only way they could design it. Because, fundamentally, the first thing people want to know when they get in a car with no controls is "this thing doesn't want to kill me."

Getting into this first generation of driverless cars takes a great deal of faith from people who've spent their whole lives in control of motor vehicles. Trusting the car to be safe and not kill you is a big deal. Making the car look cute and friendly immediately puts people in a more accepting frame of mind. It looks slow, timid, eager to please — all of these things will make people feel more comfortable about getting behind the no-wheel in there.

Why Google's Goofy Little Self-Driving Car Is Almost A Design Triumph

Think about how people would feel if this looked like, say, a Viper. If you had a powerful, aggressive-looking robot car, you'd immediately anthropomorphize concepts of speed, competitiveness, aggression, anger, determination, and other ideas that are fantastic on a sports car, but not what you want if you're trying to read your Kindle while en route to Trader Joe's.

Which brings me to my next point: it's not really supposed to look much like a car — but it has to look a little like one. Google was smart not to use an existing car, or to even make this one look more like a car. As soon as it starts really looking like a car, all of our ingrained expectations about what a car should be come along for the ride.

If it looked like a car, I'd start wondering how it handles, or how fast it can go, or if it understeers or what the road feel is like — and none of those things matter at all. If you're not driving, handling doesn't matter, driving feel doesn't matter, none of that matters. So having it not look much like a conventional car frees your mind from even starting to make those associations.

Still, it needs to have enough key traits — windows, doors, four wheels, readable taillights, headlights, etc. — so that we can immediately categorize is as something in the car family, something to be used for transportation. So it has to ride a line between car and not-car, and I think it does it well.

There's other very effective details here, too, that you may not immediately realize. It's got an electric drivetrain, and it doesn't appear to have much room for many batteries, so my guess is the range isn't stellar. But that's okay, since the design of the car prepares you for this.

How? No trunk. No trunk means no long trips. The car has room to stash groceries or bags down on the floor, but there's no apparent dedicated luggage space. Which subtly informs you, without saying anything, that this is a city car.

There's also the color — the cute look you'd think would suggest some bright, fun color. But I get why Google didn't make these in red or yellow or bright green. Cute + bright color = something close to toy. Silver, white, grey — these are all colors of modernity, technology, the future. The color is what makes the cute little car feel like a technological marvel as opposed to a silly kid's toy.

Why Google's Goofy Little Self-Driving Car Is Almost A Design Triumph

Now, it's not perfect, of course. I feel like they got 85% there, but there's some significant issues. The cute face is good, but that mouth expression feels a bit too uncertain, too frightened. It should be friendly, confident, even plucky. But the current face doesn't give much confidence that the car knows where it's going. That can be fixed, and should be. You can do cute and non-threatening without looking like you're moments away from a panic attack.

Also, as these cars become more common, there will be less pressure for such overtly cute, harmless designs. This is good for the first generation, but future versions should feel free to explore more complex emotions.

As a prototype, there's also quality and refinement issues here. It's fundamentally a Japanese-style Kawaii sort of design, but it reads almost as Kawaii filtered through what we've seen on Chinese knockoff cars. It doesn't quite have that level of detail refinement, say a cute Japanese car like the Honda N-One has. Maybe they'll get there, but at the moment, the car is almost too simple.

I know not many of our core readers are going to want anything to do with this thing — and I get it. You can't drive it, so what's the point? But you have to remember, fundamentally, this isn't for us. This is for all those poor bastards who don't understand how good it feels to take a turn just the right way, to ride that edge of oversteer, to downshift and stomp the gas and feel and hear and smell the force against your body.

Why Google's Goofy Little Self-Driving Car Is Almost A Design Triumph

It's not for us. It's for the jackass in the Camry texting while doing 24 MPH, and for them it's fantastic. For us, it just means that more people-driven cars, proportionally, will be ones where driving feeling matters.

Though I would kind of like to get my hands on one of these, yank all the computers, graft on a steering wheel, and stick a 1776cc dual-carb VW flat-four in the back and see what happens.