Wheeling and dealing towards our motor homes of the future
Vilem Flusser, the Czech-born media philosopher, died in a motor accident 14 years ago this month, leaving behind him many remarkable insights - perhaps the least convincing of them his assertion that 'as technology develops, the wheel dies out, as it did in nature'. At first sight this seems difficult to take seriously, but a lot can happen in 14 years and today there must be a much larger constituency of drivers prepared to take a second look at any theory involving wheels 'dying out'. The latest figures from the motor industry show that once again this year more new cars have been sold in the UK than ever before, with up to 250,000 expected to leave the forecourt this October alone.
We all know what these figures mean in terms of congestion, but to square up to Flusser's prediction we have to go beyond crawling traffic and soaring journey times to the point of real gridlock. Not just where all traffic appears to be stationary - a point that has been announced frequently but so far has never actually arrived - but where the meaning of the word 'journey' has already swung away from a child's anticipation of its completion ('Are we nearly there yet?') to a state of hapless being where all journeys have ceased to involve movement. In other words, when the experience of road travel by car has become more like rail travel, and even more like budget air travel ('We recommend that you keep your seat belt fastened at all times'); a world of static imprisonment in an infrastructure of movement, 'where the wheel dies out as it did in nature'.
From the point of view of planning and design, such a null point has already been taken on board. In fact, it could be argued that ever since car manufacturers started elaborating the nonmovement-related parts of their product - leather upholstery, massive sound systems, radios, cup holders, hands-free telephones and so on - they have also ceased to elaborate the bread and butter moving parts. No more midget, traffic or hybrid cars, no more big engines, high-speed or fat tyres, and so on. Standardised platforms will take care of all that, leaving only the car's interior as a battleground for competition.
Servicing this aspect of the motoring experience in the expectation of long periods of involuntary static display not only presents a fascinating package of new design challenges - not just music and drinks holders but on-board refrigerators, rotating seats, picnic tables and, inevitably, some sort of high-tech WC - but also, more importantly, and notwithstanding soaring oil prices and mayoral disaproval, it guarantees that the number of Ford Transit-sized multi-person vehicles on the road is certain to increase. Whether the design studios of the grand motor manufacturers are up to all the additional plumbing, wiring and privacy involved is probably not in any doubt. After all, these are the people who mastered comfortable seats, electric windows and leak-proof sunroofs long before the construction industry did.
The real question concerns the consequence of the highstandard miniaturisation of household servicing that will result. At the Mercedes-Benz level of luxury, these vehicles will be better equipped than five-star hotel rooms and more comfortable than today's customised limousines or converted motor homes.
They may originally have been designed to sit out long waits in static motorway traffic, but they will have the potential to become the first productionline dwellings to be built by a globalised industry.
Maybe the breakthrough can only come when cars turn themselves into houses, 'and the wheel dies out, as it did in nature'.