In 2008 a French journalist from Auto Plus magazine was arrested for publishing photos of an unreleased Renault Mégane. An Internet search for the model raises the question of why anyone would be remotely interested in obtaining photos of this unremarkable five-door. But in the industry even the slightest shift in tail-light design is guarded like a state secret, and rabid journalists and enthusiasts do their utmost to detail every miniscule move the automakers make.
The irony is that despite all the pomp and circumstance, cars have changed relatively little over the course of the last century—–most of us are still stuck behind the steering wheel of a gas-guzzling combustion engine–driven ride. This latency in product development is exactly what inspired San Francisco–based designers Mike and Maaike (Californian Mike Simonian and Dutch Maaike Evers) to transport themselves to the year 2040 and imagine what driving could become without, well, driving.
"The discussion lately has been focused on what’s under the hood," Simonian says, "but that’s not something that is necessarily going to change cars."
"The discussion lately has been focused on what’s under the hood," Simonian says, "but that’s not something that is necessarily going to change cars." Instead the pair looked to emerging technologies—–like GPS devices, active cruise control, and even social networking—–to devise a novel form of transportation centered on quality living and facilitating new experiences, without steering or having to observe traffic laws. "We thought that at the point when people trust these cars enough that they don’t need a handheld control would be when cars would begin to look completely different. So rather than building a car around the idea of a driver, we built
it around all of the passengers."
Not surprisingly, Mike and Maaike’s ATNMBL (short for Autonomobile) takes many of its cues from their design experience in the world of furniture (note the resemblance of the interior to the pair’s Mute chair) and technology (the car’s navigation is an extension of the kind of functionality found on their G1 Android phone). The result is akin to a souped-up Zaha Hadid living room on wheels that behaves like a really smart iPhone.
Because the ATNMBL would utilize our present infrastructure and share the road with piloted vehicles, Mike and Maaike kept the scale similar to today’s autos—–but that’s where the similarities end. "We looked at architecture for inspiration, because if you change from a speed-driven, manually operated object to something that’s essentially living space, the question of proportions will become much more of an architectural experience," says Evers. Indeed, floor-to-ceiling windows, wraparound modular sectional, sleek coffee table, and pop-up flat screen reads more like a listing for an upmarket condo than a want ad for a new ride.
So how does it work? "It’s all voice controlled," says Simonian. "It will be very natural, as if you stepped into a cab and the cab driver was someone who knew you." Imagine ATNMBL storing directions like we store contacts in our phones, or easily being redirected after an onboard search for a last-minute movie listing or late-night Indian restaurant. Mike and Maaike even imagine downloading different driver profiles, other people’s road trips, and, most intriguingly, a sort of Facebook-meets-ride-share program. "When your car drops you off at work," Simonian explains, "it can actually go out and rent itself to other people within your trusted network."
"It’s like a pool," Evers expounds, "so as you’re lending out your car into the system, you’re able to make money, whereas if you enter the system to ride, you pay a couple bucks."
Part of what makes ATNMBL unique is that the clients were Mike and Maaike themselves. After working for larger firms, the pair decided that when they launched their own studio they would allot a certain amount of time to self-motivated projects such as this.
It keeps their thinking nimble and eventually pays for itself by helping win new business down the road. "There have been some interesting reactions," says Simonian. "Gearheads see this as a big threat, while to other people the end of driving is like the end of washing dishes.""It’s important that people start talking about what they really want from cars or transportation," Evers asserts. "If we keep getting a little more styling, it doesn’t really take us anywhere new. We wanted to stir up excitement and passion, which is why we deliberately did some things that are controversial." Given the current state of the auto industry, excitement and passion could be just what cars and drivers need.
For an interview with Mike and Maaike conducted by Sam Grawe, view our video.