The Google Car looks like a VW bug post-castration. The Tesla is a ride for the rich and boring. Both vehicles feature AI that can take the wheel for you–and yet, both cars are still, notably, cars with four wheels, doors, and rear trunk space. Where’s all the imagination?
Maybe in Next, a Silicon Valley-based startup with a different vision for the vehicle of the future. Its concept, which has yet to be built as a physical prototype yet is slated for a 2020 release, imagines your car as a transparent box on four very small wheels. It has the physical footprint of a cramped Smart car and the 2.5-ton heft of a mid-sized sedan, but it has the functional space of a tiny room–with enough headroom to actually stand up.
Next’s lead designer, Tommaso Gecchelin, tells me that autonomous vehicles thus far have been built around PR more than innovation; to “embed [AI] in a regular car gives a more friendly and ensuring feeling,” he explains.
In response, Next proposes an alternative setup–similar to those imagined by the design firm Ideo and car site Jalopnik. Next’s vehicles less resemble their 20th century forebears, and instead are built around a world in which we may want an office for the road, or an UberEats-esque delivery box on wheels. In this sense, Next caters both to the on-demand economy and our need for travel. The cars are designed to link up like a train, so that a whole fleet of commuters could operate more aerodynamically, while allowing riders to move from car to car for services like refreshments and meals on long trips.
Next is, in essence, a dumb box on wheels that can intelligently cater to various circumstances.
The cabs themselves have been imagined with small wheels and active suspension systems, which eliminate the road feel that drivers like to sense in a car. “On Next, this system will be more than useful, since you want to completely forget you are on the road, and think you are on your living room sofa,” Gecchelin says. The floor-to-ceiling windows are actually a rendered illusion. The bottom half of the car is polished aluminum, which works in tandem with the chassis to absorb shock in the incident of a crash. Legally mandated seat belts and airbags will also be integrated into the system.
Gecchelin promises that a “huge R&D effort is beyond the fancy illustrations,” but Next has yet to build a prototype, and it isn’t sharing details on funding. Doubts as to whether or not Next can pull this vision of the future off, however, don’t mean the vision itself is wrong. Because as companies like Uber and Amazon duke it out to quickly deliver the goods of the future, their vehicles are sure to adapt in ways that 20th century cars never needed to consider.
Correction: An earlier version of this story equated the Next’s weight with a Honda Fit, when it’s closer to a mid-sized sedan.