Car Design is Dead
“Cars have never been more competent than they are today … and never less useful,” wrote the critic Stephen Bayley in his 2012 book Cars.
More competent, less useful. The method I used to measure what would seem like a paradoxical statement is the concept of “proper function” and “system function” by theorist Beth Preston.
According to Preston, proper function, in its simplest terms, is “the function for which the object has been reproduced or copied from ancestors.” It aims to explain the lineage of objects that lead to object under examination. For example, the proper function of a car door is to act as a hinged weatherproof barrier allowing human beings to enter and exit the passenger compartment of the automobile.
System function, by contrast, “captures the breadth of functions the object in fact does or is disposed to do in its current context.” This can be any possible function you can imagine, even if the object has never performed that function before and never will again in the future. Returning to our example of the car door, the system functions also include being the aforementioned weatherproof barrier, but equally possesses the system function of shielding policemen from gunfire, making small indentations in the sides of other cars, annihilating unsuspecting cyclists in heavy traffic, and in the case of Vinnie Jones’ character in the film Snatch, concussing small time London gangsters.
Inherent in this conceptualization of function is a gap between what an object was specified to do and how it is actually used. Take your average sports utility vehicle which is designed to brave a blizzard in Vermont but is usually used to shuttle suburban kids to and from school. Is the gap between the proper function—the all-terrain, all-weather capability of the SUV—and the system function—how rarely, if ever, these capabilities are used—not a massive inefficiency? Take your average sedan that seats five people. How often does one actually transport five adult humans in one’s sedan? Most drivers average somewhere around two passengers. Are the remaining three seats not a waste of resources?
Or take your average sports car, equipped with a powerful engine and fine-tuned suspension system—a huge pleasure to drive on the open road. Is it not entirely frustrated spending most of its life stuck in commuter traffic? These gaps between the proper function and system function are magnified by the fact that your average single-owner-operated car spends 95% of its lifetime parked, inert. We want a car that can do everything, but the harsh reality is that most of the incredible effort that went into making it is wasted.