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Imaginative Stretch

 Imagine a small, two-seat vehicle, about the size of a golf cart on andro, not full-blown steroids: bulked up but not massive.

 Imagine a small, two-seat vehicle, about the size of a golf cart on andro, not full-blown steroids: bulked up but not massive. This electric vehicle (EV) is actually road-worthy: classified by NHTSA as a vehicle that can be driven at speeds under 35 mph (put into perspective: the type of vehicle that was classified by NHTSA before this one was the light truck, in 1973).

The designer of this vehicle, Dan Sturges, pulls out a drawing, inspired by his stepson, that has a Super Soaker-like water cannon apparatus on the vehicle’s roof. Although it might be comparatively goofy, the fact that Sturges shows it to me along with other things, such as a serious, bound report from the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis (“New Mobility: Using Technology and Partnerships to Create More Sustainable Transportation,” which he prepared along with three others), says a whole lot about the intelligence, imagination and vision that characterizes Sturges.

(About the vehicle, the non-squirt version: Sturges was the co-founder of a company, trans2, which was established in Livonia, Michigan in the late ‘80s. The company had a 10-year run. During that time it built 700 of the vehicles, which are in the class known as “neighborhood vehicles.”)

A quick biographical review:

After he obtained a degree from the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Sturges went to work on the Design Staff of General Motors. His advisor at the school had recommended that Sturges spend at least two years at GM. Sturges stayed put for one. Although he is glad that he had the opportunity to work at the automaker as it gave him insights into how work is done there, when asked why he truncated his tour, he wryly commented, “They started designing the Roadmaster.”

Following GM he went to work at an industrial design firm, frogdesign, in Sunnyvale, California. He stayed there for about a year-and-a-half. The vision of the small car drove him to establish trans2. After the trans2 experience—which, he explains, involved a whole lot of non-design concerns that meant that he was spending an incredible amount of time not designing, something that he is most interested in—he went to UC-Davis, where he became the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies and a professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Environmental Studies. Then he went back to frogdesign.

Nowadays, Sturges is establishing frog’s presence in Detroit, by setting up an office in Ann Arbor.

The objective of frog in Detroit is not to be another industrial design firm with consumer sensibilities coming to town to help out the folks who think all cars, all the time. Sturges, who has the title “Director, New Mobility,” explains that frog practices what they call “convergence design,” in which industrial designers and software designers work in collaboration (although nominally an industrial design firm, which comes up with designs for things ranging from consumer electronics to ski boots, about half of frogdesign’s business is in digital media). While this might give them an advantage because of the current popularity of telematics in Detroit, Sturges wants to go beyond designing products with superior interfaces (e.g., he points out that by combining the industrial designer with the software designer, it may be possible to, say, reduce the number of physical buttons on a device by using a compliment of virtual buttons; consequently, not only is the interface a more efficient one, but there are also savings in tooling and manufacturing costs).

Sturges wants to further explore the architecture of the car, the place of the vehicle in society, and the implications of the Internet on mobility. He describes the possibilities of things ranging from people belonging to mobility clubs, where vehicles would be shared, ordered and scheduled via the ‘net, to the “zoom room,” a car that would become an office on wheels after the windshield and backlight are popped out in a way analogous to a pop-top camping trailer. He believes that technology developments in computing and manufacturing may make it possible for vehicles to be designed and produced regionally. He knows more than a little something about making things; he notes that they tooled up the trans2 EV for less money than that required to tool up to produce a ski boot.

Whether the ideas of Sturges and his fellow frogs will be realized in Detroit will take levels of imagination at OEMs and supplier companies that aren’t often discerned. But the consequences of the stretch could make driving an entirely new experience, even though the platform is more than 100 years old.

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