Free Bird or Cyborg: What Will Next Generation Car Designers Create?

Free Bird or Cyborg? In an age of ever-increasing realism in gaming and growing interest in artificial intelligence, what forms of future mobility will next-generation car designers create? Paul Snyder asks some questions.

In the Detroit metro region around the College for Creative Studies, interest in car design among high school graduates has not kept pace with Entertainment Arts (EA). Evidently, the attraction to gaming and fantasy future worlds is more powerful than the pull of car design, now that EA is a field of its own. However, as a generation coming of age, there are still plenty of passionate students of Transportation Design, and they are just coming from all over the world, instead of being mostly locally homegrown as before.

In any case, I’d like to suggest the popularity of EA among design students indicates the broader influence of gaming and the digital realms on this generation’s aesthetic sensibility. I find this interesting because students of design have the very real challenge and responsibility of defining the future personality of intelligent machines, while most are completely comfortable playing in virtual war zones populated with cyborg hero armor and zombie-littered landscapes.

Luckily generations Y and Z may also have a deeper appreciation for the fragility of our planet, and hopefully a better sense of tolerance and global community. Yet I still wonder what their contribution to our visual culture will be and, more importantly, what identity they will impart on machines of ever-increasing sentience.

In a recent interview, Elon Musk suggested that human beings would probably have to become cyborgs or risk becoming irrelevant in the future of the planet. This obviously gets into deeper philosophical questions, but in the near term, it appears we need to become more comfortable with the notion of artificial intelligence in our daily lives and begin seriously questioning what we as designers want it to look like and act like.

As we have all become storytellers and experience designers — in addition to historically giving cars a face — how do we approach the challenge of giving character to machines we will more personally interact with? Are the sinister faces of our beloved muscle cars and performance machines going to evolve into threatening-looking taxi-bots? It’s doubtful, because financial stakeholders are not stupid. Or finally, will machines need character at all beyond the function defining their form?

These are not new questions. In the many years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen student concepts ranging from a luxury pod pulled by a team of robotic horses to a razor-sharp monolith looking ready for infantry transport rather than public mobility. Yet coming back to reality, we still have these things called buses, which also act as an avatar for those who ride them, whether we like it or not. The economic and political associations are unavoidable.

So it appears character of some kind is going to be present in what we design, and the robo-taxi’s future role as avatar as well as transportation will be there in any case. In my opinion, this is a very good thing, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.


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