In 1899, a man called Uriah Smith submitted a patent request for what he called ‘a new and original Design for a Vehicle-Body’. Being in a transition from ‘horse and carriage’ to ‘horseless carriage’, Mr. Smith thought it was a good idea to give shape to a vehicle that embodied this shift to the fullest.
The resulting design was a car with a carved wooden horse-head attached to its front. Called the ‘Horsey Horseless’, the inventor argued that his vehicle would be less disturbing to the real horses it shared the road with. Giving these animals time to adapt to this yet unfamiliar and disruptive means of transport.
Given the current knowledge about automobiles, Uriah’s design hardly seems original. One might wonder why you would design a vehicle that pretends to be something it is not. This from the assumption that fellow road users are not intelligent enough to adapt themselves.
The struggles automotive designers were facing a hundred years ago could be compared to those they are confronted with nowadays. The exact same design flaw we can clearly distinguish seeing the ‘Horsey Horseless’ is being made again, as we speak.
Current innovations including electrical and driverless technologies are an opportunity to rethink not only the car, but also the entire industry and context surrounding it. Although, when giving shape to these innovations, designers generally refer back to the stereotypical image we have of vehicles nowadays.
Equal to Uriah Smith trying to reassure horses, current car manufacturers are trying to put their costumers at ease by applying a visual familiar language. Instead of changing their design direction based on new guidelines, brands stay loyal to the visual elements that have defined them through history. The design of electrical vehicles for instance still relies on its front grille while technically not needing one. This cooling element used to be essential for combustion engines but has become obsolete and purely ornamental with its electrical alternative. Therefore, equal to the ‘Horsey Horseless’, most electrical vehicles are pretending to be something they are not.
Positive progress can be seen with Tesla, which has decided to ditch the front grille in its latest model. Although this being an easy step for the recently established company since they have no lifelong visual heritage attached to them. For a brand like BMW on the other hand, it will be far more challenging to break ties with their iconic ‘kidney grille’, a visual element which has left a mark on their vehicles through history.
Presumably, a hundred years from now someone is going to write a critical piece about the current electrical or driverless means of transport. They will joke about the first autonomous vehicle still having a driver’s seat without there being an actual human driver. While laughing about the ornamental grilles on electrically driven cars they might wonder why someone would design a vehicle that pretends to be something it is not.