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The Clever Genius of the Google Car’s Design

Don Hall and Chris Williams, the co-directors of the Disney film, Big Hero 6 were looking for inspiration for the film when the Disney Chief Creative Officer and resident sage, John Lasseter encouraged them to immerse themselves in research in search of a spark.

In developing background for the movie, Hall – a visually driven director with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Drawing and Painting discussed the perception of robots in Western culture:

"Technology in Western culture a lot of times is the villain or the antagonist. You look at Terminator—robots and computers are taking over the world!” Studying robots from popular culture and science-fiction films included not only Terminator, but the droids from Star Wars and robot from Short Circuit.

"That's just the Western ones," Hall says. "Then when you start putting boards together of all the Japanese robots ... oh my gosh."

Inspired by the work of Professor Chris Atkeson and the researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, Hall and Williams were introduced to service robots using inflatable compartments whose soft surfaces were ideal for performing in a nursing home environment where Atkeson explained these robots could one day care for humans and “feed them and dress them and comb their hair and wipe their face - tasks where you get very close to the human and you touch the human."

Finding inspiration in what they saw at Carnegie Mellon, Hall and Williams shared their vision for Baymax with the Conceptual Design team at Disney who brought the character to life. Inspired by the term, “huggable” that was coined by Visual Development Artist, Lisa Keene – the character of Baymax remains one of the most original depictions of a robot to date. The Disney team visualized an evolution of what the researchers at Carnegie Mellon were doing and created a whole new visual language for a robot, based on inflatable components. This created the core identity of Baymax, it’s non-threatening form factors reinforcing the visual metaphors for safe, soft and gentle.

The same thinking that applied to Baymax is what makes the Google car so unique. Changing the perception of robots (or cars) was important, if anything to put the observer at ease, more willing to engage. The soft forms look practically toy-like, and change the paradigm as much as Baymax did from the Terminator.

The idea of an autonomous vehicle could sound threatening – the safety, privacy, regulatory issues revolving a car are immense. Can an autonomous car be hacked? Can auto-pilot really replace “human insight”? What if they freeze like computers do and lose control somehow? Consider the mental obstacles that an autonomous vehicle’s design would have to overcome.

Compare the non-threatening shape of the Google Car with the top selling vehicle in the US, The Ford F-150. The F-150 is a pickup truck, a vehicle that is as capable and rugged as it’s chiseled exterior would declare. Indestructible looking, the F150 features a massive front grille, that is the automotive equivalent to a cowboy belt buckle – both a symbol of swagger and grit. Surely a different message would have communicated to the general public if Google decided to use a design template based on the top-selling vehicle for their autonomous vehicle – imagine the reaction of seeing an F-150-like 18 foot long, 6.5 foot wide (and nearly as tall) 4x4 rolling down the street with no driver at the wheel?

Therein lies the genius of the design of the Google Car. Recognized by London’s Design Museum with the Design of the Year Transport Award, the car’s motivations aren’t unlike that of Baymax. Developed and designed by YooJung Ahn, Jared Gross and Philipp Haban at Google to look approachable, it could not look as menacing as a pickup, nor as slick as a sporty car (it would look too fast – i.e. not safe!) By focusing less on the car as “an object”, but more on the car as a function of the “objective of the project”– getting the public familiar with the concept of autonomous cars, having them participate in the progress of the concept and ultimately have the public accept the idea as inevitable and a sign of positive progress – Google will have cracked the code on the development of a feasible autonomous car. But as importantly, just as the creators of Big Hero Six did through design, the creators of the Google Car will have cracked the mental barriers about the viability of autonomous technology.

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