General Motors has a vision of motoring in 2030, when autonomous cars free us from the tyranny of the commute, and it’s … interesting.
Terrifying and exhilarating, it seems built for a dystopian future somewhere between Tron and Blade Runner, with the hands from Edward Scissorhands thrown in. Cars aren’t comfy cocoons, they’re knives on wheels. And while GM isn’t a company most associated with innovation or autonomous vehicles, it’s been exploring the technology since at least 2007, when it started working with Carnegie Mellon and competed in a DARPA self-driving car challenge.
The Chevrolet-FNR is unlike any self-driving car or concept we’ve seen so far. Audi focuses its concepts on the near future, what cars might look like in five years, when some autonomous features are available. Google’s got a prototype with no steering wheel or pedals, but it’s a long ways from cool. Unveiled at the Shanghai auto show, the FNR (for Find New Roads, Chevy’s slogan) has a lot in common with the Mercedes-Benz self-driving concept we saw earlier this year. Both are aimed at the year 2030. They run on electricity and have interiors plastered with touch and gesture-controlled screens, basic requirements for any futuristic concept car.
You'd think that in a world where cars drive themselves, they'd all act the same way–safely and efficiently, not for the excitement of the passengers. It's not a roller coaster, it's transportation. But coming from Chevy, this makes sense.
Each has front seats that rotate to face the rear passengers, a smart nod to one of the biggest changes autonomous cars will deliver: The irrelevance of longstanding norms like forward-facing seats, mirrors, pedals, and steering wheels.
But while the German concept’s curves make it reminiscent of a bar of soap, the American newcomer is all sharp lines, as if it were assembled from switchblades. The interior is reminiscent of the alien spacecraft in Independence Day. The doors are similarly out of this world, a mashup of gullwing and suicide styles Chevy calls “dragonfly dual swing doors.”
Chevy mentions some pretty swank tech, including iris recognition instead of a key, crystal laser lights, and “magnetic hubless wheel electric motors,” whatever those are. The “motorized webbed seats” would read passengers’ heart rate and blood pressure, and tweak the temperature, lighting, and music accordingly, Fortune reports. The ability to “map out the best route to the driver’s preferred destination” sounds like pretty standard navigation, and the roof-mounted radar system explains how the FNR sees and navigates the outside world.The FNR is all sharp lines, as if it were assembled from switchblades. General Motors
Chevy promises passengers can still drive if they want to, through gesture control. How that would work is an open question, but allowing person behind the wheel to take control is SOP for every robo-car currently being built, proposed, or imagined by an automaker. This is as much about assuaging your concern about being rendered irrelevant as it is about the automakers’ concern that they’ll be rendered irrelevant when cars drive themselves.
General Motors takes the “you can take over anytime” idea one step further, according to Fortune, promising that, “for drivers who like an edgier performance experience, the FNR will be able to tighten its suspension and execute tight turns while hitting high but legal speeds.”
That seems strange. You’d think that in a world where cars drive themselves, they’d all act the same way—safely and efficiently, not for the excitement of the passengers. It’s not a roller coaster, it’s transportation. But coming from Chevy, this makes sense, says David Carlisle, chairman of the board of auto industry consultancy Carlisle & Company.
Chevy has some performance cred—it is the company that gave us the Corvette and Camaro, after all—and that’s not a market it’s ready to abandon. Nor should it, Carlisle says. “Let [the performance market] vaporize rather than walk away from it. It’s gonna be a leverage-able segment for the foreseeable future.” There’s also the fact that this is a concept, so GM can say whatever it wants (and promise whatever technology it wants), regardless of whether it can ever happen.
That’s what concept cars are all about. They aren’t necessarily vehicles you expect to see, but a canvas for things you’d like to see. They’re like a lame duck president’s budget proposal, daring ideas with little basis in reality.
As many benefits as self-driving cars promise—a dramatic drop in deadly crashes chief among them—they threaten to kill what’s fun about driving, and make all cars feel the same. It doesn’t outweigh the lives that could be saved, but it’s sad nonetheless.
And for that reason, we’re glad to see this bonkers idea from Chevy: It may not be pretty, but it keeps things interesting.