When Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, the company transformed not just how cars were manufactured, but also how they were marketed. Automobiles, previously, had been luxury goods, often associated with sports—the toys, basically, of the wealthy and the daring. But Ford, in its desire to sell its products at scale, also needed to normalize its products at scale: to associate them in the public mind not with adventure, but with banality.
"I will build a car for the great multitude," Ford put it.
It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and take care of. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.
With the prototype of the driverless car it announced last night, Google is doing something similar. It is taking the logic that has underscored so much of late-20th-century car marketing—cars as luxury, cars as freedom, cars as sex—and flipped it. There is nothing pretty or powerful about Google's prototype. There is certainly, no offense to the little guy, nothing sexy about it. The car is instead—and there really is no other way to say it—adorable. It looks like a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and a Disneyland ride. It has a face. With a button nose. And wide eyes. Look closely, and it seems to be grinning at you. Wheeee.
Which would be weird, especially in a market that prefers to associate cars with deeply held ideals of independence and, literally, self-direction. But, of course, this is intentional cartoonishness. Google's prototypes aren't meant to convey ideals so much as they're meant to convey … familiarity. Friendliness. The reassurance that comes, implicitly, with being part of "the great multitude."
They are, like the Model T before them, strategically banal.
And they sort of have to be. Because driverless cars could be revolutionary. They are, one non-driver at a time, attempting to transform transportation not just as an infrastructure, but as an activity and as an assumption. As Larry Burns, former head of R&D at GM and a consultant to Google, told Alexis, "I think this is not evolutionary but a major shift in how we think about personal mobility."
And you know what consumers, in general, don't tend to love in their technology? Major shifts—at least, major shifts that come suddenly, bringing transformation without the courtesy of lethargy. (Take neurasthenia, the 19th-century idea that “wireless telegraphy, science, steam power, newspapers and the education of women; in other words modern civilization” was to blame for "widespread anxiety, depression, headaches and fatigue." The long-ago-discredited disorder was also known as "Americanitis.") We consumers of technology, as unapologetic adopters of status quo bias, tend to like the changes foisted on us to be incremental. And when new devices—new approaches—violate the status quo, we tend to dismiss them in a way that recalls the 19th-century anxieties. We call them "creepy."
As Google's then-CEO, Eric Schmidt, put it to The Atlantic's James Bennet in 2010: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”
For the driverless car prototype, that approach involves ... adorability. The driverless car(toon) is evidence and symptom of what Buzzfeed's Charlie Warzel calls "Moonshot Google"—the rebranding of the company as "the Google that wants to use your information, along with everyone else’s, to teach machines how to drive cars, heat your home, and keep you alive longer." Moonshot Google is the Google that, instead of grazing the creepy line, leaps over it. It's the Google that, in the case of the driverless car, has bargained that the best response to paranoia is pareidolia. It's the Google that recognizes that the root of "kawaii," the Japanese concept of cuteness, is not just ai, or love, but also ka—acceptability. It's the Google that hopes what we find "cute" and what we find "creepy" will be, on some level, mutually exclusive.