Co.Design

Top Car Designers Critique Google's Self-Driving Car

What do some of the best designers think of the car with an actual smiley face on the front? We talk to former design chiefs at BMW, McLaren, and Mazda to find out.

Google's self-driving car isn't just unconventional in the fact that it drives itself: it's an extremely unusual design, more reminiscent of micro-cars like the Smart Car, Fiat 500, and that weird BMW that Steve Urkel drove than a conventional auto. From the bulbous shape to the total lack of manual controls to the literal smiley face on the car's face, the Google car isn't quite like anything else on the road.

So we got curious: what do car designers think of it? Most active designers chose not to speak to us, not wanting to comment on what might be a competitor in the near future, but we tracked down three of the best designers in the business—or formerly in the business—showed them Google's demo video, and asked for their thoughts.

Chris Bangle, former chief of design for BMW, Mini, and Rolls-Royce

Here we are seeing little footage pieces to the tune of a Playskool infant's toy and it is hard not to come away feeling My First Car is rolling by ... but in this case it would be My First Non-Car.

The single curve fascination as the concept for a vehicle has been around since The People's Car was being born in Germany and Le Corbusier was exercising his compass and T-square virtuosity in France.

The "face" is supposed to be cutesy but is awful weak. Is it a cartoon or not? Their headquarters is near that of Pixar, but evidently not near enough.

Peter Stevens, former chief of design for McLaren, Lotus, MG, and consultant for...pretty much everywhere

What we have been allowed to see so far is a rather unsophisticated and naïvely detailed little two-seat car. It is inoffensive in the extreme, with a rather forlorn and apologetic look. The body overhangs the wheels in a way that makes it look rather unstable and the form appears to lack substance, whilst the derivative treatment of the lower sills suggest an immature vision of automotive forms. But the passengers in the Google video, mostly older people or people for whom driving is a stressful experience were clearly taken with the looks, ‘It’s so cute,' being typical of the responses.

The concept of just sitting there and doing something else rather than driving suggests a passive approach to life, which I find rather sad. There is nothing wrong with cute, nothing wrong with small, nothing wrong with efficient but everything wrong with weak design. This car doesn’t need to look like a Ford Mustang or a Camaro but it does need to suggest that Google’s vision for future transportation is an attractive one that we will all want to buy into.

Tom Matano, former chief of design for Mazda, designer at General Motors, currently at the Academy of Art University

It looks like a Google. Somewhat quirky and fun, kind of colorful. It presented like Google to me. So the perception of what a Google car would be, I think it's matched, in my opinion.

I don't like that antenna on top [note: presumably it's some kind of visual sensor or camera to assist with navigation]. They should have better solved that problem in a more production-ready way. But I guess it's necessary equipment.


There's a bigger perception/reality problem with self-driving cars, like airport people-movers. Remember when those first came out, they were talking about putting a driver on because people don't trust them, people are against them? They say they have to have a driver even though safety track records say these are absolutely safe. I'm sure the driverless car is safe too, with all the GPS technologies and all, but people don't accept it on the regular road [instead of] on a railway. How they are going to manage it is another issue.

I think the communication and message [could have been] too cold and mechanical, you know, 'look at me as a machine.' This is more personable, but not too comical. It's more of a Japanese way.

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26 Comments

  • James Welling

    Holding back Fully autonomous cars is like holding back a cancer cure.

    If the establish car manufacturers had the bollocks to help Google they wouldn't need to have made their first car.

  • In east asia, childlike cuteness is a cultural norm that forgives those who possess it. Any and all mistakes and misdeeds are thought of as cute an entertaining. Children are not supposed to take responsibility for their existence until they are much older.

    This car follows the same line of cultural thinking. As a child the google car does not have to take responsibility for itself yet, as it is young and is supposed to be focused on being cute and entertaining for the public. If it crashes and kills its occupants....it will look cute doing so and in the end be more easily forgiven and allowed to continue with its development without any serious reprimand.

  • Michael Ajoodan-Poor

    As a graduate car designer I made something like this. Everyone at uni seemed to not like it, outside of university however people saw the potential and loved it.

    I created a driverless RV, the next step after these driverless vehicles become a reality (it is happening wether the car industry believe it or not)

    Robo RV concept: http://media.cmcdn.net/22977481/780x551/resample(lanczos).jpeg

    My portfolio: www.mardadesign.co.uk

  • 41a8bd20

    This looks like a rounded golf-cart, with a tip of the hat to the original VW golf, and a small dash of Benz 'Smart' thrown in. The result is reminiscent of 'The Howard' (Larry David's 'Clear History'). There is no need to make it flashy, but this looks ultra cheap and utilitarian, but without a roll cage and flashing dome on top, it might be good. There isn't much original thought in the aesthetic. I hate to say it, but for the prototypical everyman's vehicle of the 21stC, perhaps Google should ask their mates at Apple for some design ideas ?

  • 41a8bd20

    This looks like a rounded golf-cart, with a tip of the hat to the original VW golf, and a small dash of Benz 'Smart' thrown in. The result is reminiscent of 'The Howard' (Larry David's 'Clear History'). There is no need to make it flashy, but this looks ultra cheap and utilitarian, but without a roll cage and flashing dome on top, it might be good. There isn't much original thought in the aesthetic. I hate to say it, but for the prototypical everyman's vehicle of the 21stC, perhaps Google should ask their mates at Apple for some design ideas ?

  • Jeff Scott Halmos

    Couple random things come to mind with all this: 1) The designers were asked to judge the car; not the concept. At least, that's how they interpreted it. 2) Google seems to have enough money to once and for all make visceral the notion that "just because you can doesn't mean you should." 2B) It's a very big Google Glass, in that it doesn't seem to care about what happens when you have more than one of these things on the road, and what it, you know, reverses, enhances, retrieves, and obsolesces. What's this project's "it hurts when I keep having to look up?"

  • Jørge Campos

    Well, old people lke it, and the world has more and more old people so this car might not be a bad idea as a car for the old. Think about Florida.

  • sradney

    I'm surprised there has been no reference to Mike & Maaike, a design firm acquired by Google who was responsible for the G1 (phone) and this autonomous auto concept: http://www.mikeandmaaike.com/#p_atnmbl

    Did anyone ever figure out what came of that acquisition? Here's Christina Chaey's take: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669871/meet-mike-and-maaike-the-design-studio-ushering-google-into-hardware

    I personally feel like Ross Lovegrove's approach with COAS might have been more fun! You can check it here: http://www.rosslovegrove.com/index.php/custom_type/coas/?category=transport

  • Sorry, but these guys are completely missing the mark. They are so encompassed in their own "old" world they don't realise that faster, sleaker, stronger doesn't apply here. Google is at the forefront of a revolution here, and people are scared of change. They are scared of things they don't know, and particularly scared of things that might hurt them - such as a car that's driving autonomously. So what do you do? Design a car that looks like sportscar, SUV, bigger bolder better stronger? certainly not. You design a car that doesn't look like anything on the market right now, that looks tiny, cute, and utterly harmless. I believe they are onto something big that the industry has yet to understand.

  • The concept is amazing, I can't even begin to think of how great this would be on my hour long commute. That being said, it would have been really cool if they came out with two models. A nice sedan and this cute cartoon of a smart car. I think it is a detriment to the technology to only release a car that looks like a mouse. I get it, people are scared of the unknown, but there are so many that aren't. I say, the fizzled with this design. It's not a great, but it's not horrible. I just hope it survives longer than the EV1.

  • I beg to disagree! And I think that we (you?, sorry) are misunderstanding the designers. I get the impression that Bangle - for instance - agrees on the design theme, and making it cute and harmless, but that it could/should be executed better. It's difficult to explain but proportions and graphics could be so much...tighter. To make a point I'll compare with UI-design; this car looks like a sketch (wireframe) that is hinting towards a theme (cute/harmless). Perfect for board meetings but not refined enough for market.

    I think Bangle meant it like that, but: Thinking 2 loops about it I guess Google might have made the choice to keep it "unfinished" because it IS a prototype. So Bangle revived it from the - faulty - perspective of a street ready product.

  • Matthias Auf Der Lauer

    I think the designers are misunderstood a bit here. First of all, they are not at all in line in what they are saying about the design.

    While Tom doesn't have a problem with the design itself, Chris and Peter are criticizing the execution of the design idea.

    While a non-aggressive, playful look is certainly fitting for a 'non-car' (not that it's new, many small cars such as the Renault Twingo, Fiat 500, Nissan Micra, Mini, etc) the actual product is less than well-styled.

    I'm guessing that design wasn't top-priority in this project, but it's not hard to come up with a lot more sensible solutions to make the vision of a round, harmless car a reality.

  • aesthetic_apparatus

    I can assure you working and designing in the automotive motive industry the critiques are not missing the mark. While I could argue against some points raised in the above article. Google missed the mark with the vehicle in terms of design.

    Fundamentally Google did something ground breaking here in terms of technology and every car maker right now is discussing this topic as we speak. Google will now be known as the ones who did it first! Bravo!

    But, they missed the mark in how it can be symbolised not from a pure brand perspective but how it can be relevant to the occupants and this topic of autonomy. They essentially designed a cute car from today, but how is this a symbol of autonomy and how does this relate to the experience of the user? Think in more detail about an autonomous car, it's un-crashable and why do you need a regular occupant package like today? This also enables a complete rethink of material and construction for the vehicle. An opportunity lost...

  • aesthetic_apparatus

    I can assure you working and designing in the automotive motive industry the critiques are not missing the mark. While I could argue against some points raised in the above article. Google missed the mark with the vehicle in terms of design.

    Fundamentally Google did something ground breaking here in terms of technology and every car maker right now is discussing this topic as we speak. Google will now be known as the ones who did it first! Bravo!

    But, they missed the mark in how it can be symbolised not from a pure brand perspective but how it can be relevant to the occupants and this topic of autonomy. They essentially designed a cute car from today, but how is this a symbol of autonomy and how does this relate to the experience of the user? Think in more detail about an autonomous car, it's un-crashable and why do you need a regular occupant package like today? This also enables a complete rethink of material and construction for the vehicle. An opportunity lost...

  • Žarko Jović

    EXACTLY!!! Bravo! I was going to write the same! This Google's design is smartest possible... Do not think Google is stupid. They are not stupid, they just want to engage peple not to fear of new technologies. Driverless car should not look like some unstopable rocket. PLUS today car design has become absolutely boring!

  • if you're going to create a product that changes the game why choose the form factor of the legacy you're going to destroy? It's like coming up with an MP3 player buy making it look like a Reel to Reel system.

    Let's be fair, Google are particularly shit at design, be it interfaces, logos, branding, you name it, all their stuff looks a bit shonky. This fits the bill nicely.

    My advice would be to go to someone like Dyson or Frog or any other forward thinking Industrial Design specialists and give them a blank sheet of paper and let them rethink the shape of transport without the car convention.

  • It is so clever. You climb in an idea and the idea take you were you want with no reference to my car is bigger than yours. So the car designers are perhaps the people who will have the biggest difficulties to understand what could be the design of this thing. Except Tom Matano because most of the japanese people don't see evil in robot.