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."