Boris Sofman, Hanns Tappeiner, and Mark Palatucci couldn't figure it out. The three were experts in robotics and artificial intelligence, with a handful of advanced graduate degrees among them. But when it came to the task of designing a simple toy car for their first product, Anki Drive, the team was at a loss. "I designed the very first cars myself, and trust me, I'm not a designer," Tappeiner admits. "They sort of looked like Mini Coopers—I'm very glad nobody has seen them."
The engineers scrapped their initial plans, bought a slew of concept car books, and began ripping through the pages prowling for inspiration. They labeled every single image on a scale of one to three, and quickly realized their top-rated concepts were all created by one person, Harald Belker, an automotive designer best known for his work in Hollywood. Just days later, the team hopped in their real-life car (surprise, surprise: a Mini Cooper) and headed south toward Los Angeles, set on convincing Belker to join their startup.
After years of effort, Anki Drive will finally go on sale this week. For $199, customers can buy a set of algorithmically controlled toy cars, which they can race against using the iPhone as a steering wheel. The team calls it the "first video game in the real world." While it may sound like nothing more than a holiday gift for kids, Anki hopes the technology it has developed to enable its miniature vehicles to operate autonomously will have larger significance for a range of industries, from driverless cars to health care. But in the near term, the success of the company will ride on its first product, Anki Drive, and more specifically on the design of its toy cars and how they resonate with customers. For that, the team turned to Belker, who made his name by designing iconic, futuristic vehicles for blockbusters like Minority Report and Tron: Legacy.
It's an extreme example of the unlikely marriage required between engineering and design. In Silicon Valley, where hacker-founded startups are the norm, too often is design DNA discounted from the equation. But Anki's cofounders were humble enough to realize that PhDs from Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute didn't make them wizards of automotive design—a smart decision in an era when engineering-centric founders feel inclined to dictate everything about their services, from the app icon to the user interface design.
To Belker, the Anki team's willingness to outsource its design was a welcome relief in a field that all too often attracts unqualified backseat drivers. "I always say that everyone with a driver's license is secretly a car designer—I get a lot of opinions very, very quickly," Belker chuckles. "In entertainment [especially], I deal with a lot of characters who know better."
After all, with $50 million in venture capital from Andreessen Horowitz and other top-tier firms, the Anki team had 50 million reasons to believe they could pull it off on their own. But Belker didn't encounter any Hollywood-size egos. "The beautiful thing was that Hanns and his guys, they have the technology [know-how], but they really trusted me in bringing my expertise to the table," he says, "and not micromanaging the design."
To begin, Belker and the Anki team got together to brainstorm ideas: automotive themes, personality traits, the benefits of spoilers and tire size, and so forth. But once they were on the same page, Belker was essentially given carte blanche because, as Tappeiner explains, there are dangers to having too many chefs in the kitchen. "We chose not to micromanage the design on purpose because I feel like design can go really wrong when you get five people [concentrating] on little features," he says. "First, we brainstormed about it—what should we be doing overall. But [when we later looked at Belker's designs] it was either yes or no. I really don't like to comment on [specific] features—it's either we take it or leave it, because at the end of the day, that probably gets us better results."
While the Gladiator-style approval process might irk some, Belker preferred it to having non-designers nitpicking over his designs. "That personally drives me nuts," he says.
The final design is one that Belker felt conveyed "forward-leaping motion" even "when the car is standing still." The tiny cars look fast, in other words. Each style was designed to give users a sense of each car's unique character, with lines and shape reflecting their strength or aggressiveness. As the design went from initial sketching to 3-D mock-ups to prototype models, the design and engineering teams became more intimately intertwined. "In robotics, hardware-software design is more significantly tied together than other products," Tappeiner says. "If the weight distribution in any of our cars changes by more than one gram, then the cars won't drive anymore, at all."
It was a novel challenge for Belker, who is not used to deferring to physics when designing in Hollywood. But Belker has always had to depend on his imagination more than anything. When I asked whether it was difficult designing tiny cars that one would never be able to fit in, Boris Sofman, Anki's CEO, laughs. "Harald is insanely creative, and he's also massive," Sofman says, adding that at six foot six, Belker has faced this issue all his life.
"I don't fit into anything I design," Belker says. "Even in the 28-foot-long Batmobile I designed, I couldn't fit."