Thinking From The Outside In: Invention And The Car Design Of The Future

(Note: The image following is not my design mentioned in the story, but rather is the AT-PT Walker from Star Wars – a similar concept)

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Thinking From The Outside In: Invention And The Car Design Of The Future
Dan Wilt

When I was young, naive, and playful (I’m always seeking to grow up into that state once again), I entered a contest.

It was the “Car Design Of The Future” contest for our region of my home state (Pennsylvania), and hundreds of students would be entering their designs for the optimal vehicle to lead us into the years ahead.

I knew that while I was an avid drawer, fellow students in my own high school, and in schools around our area, were spectacular in their abilities. Many were entering the contest, and to be sure their designs would be drawn with both exacting detail and flashy features.

I had decided not to enter the contest when my art teacher walked up to me one day in class. “You’re going to enter the contest, arent’ you, Danny?” she asked with a hint of encouragement. (I supposed I should mention that “Danny” had been my moniker up and until university. My wife will still call me that when she wants to refer to my emotional maturity in a given instance.)

“I don’t draw machines well; I don’t even like the look of cars.” She smiled at my response. “Why would you start thinking conventionally? You don’t think like that any other time. Besides, that’s what everyone else is doing. They’re drawing cars. You need to draw a vehicle – something unique.”

She was pushing me to start from the outside in, from the periphery. If my imagination could take me to terrains possibly unimaginable to the 20th century teenage mind, I just might have a chance to design something interesting and more up my alley. Winning what I now discovered was a cash prize was the straw that broke the lumpy horse’s back. I said, “Okay; I don’t like cars. But I’ll try.”

The day my submission was due to my art teacher, I walked nervously up to her desk. She looked at my picture, and with her bright eyes and disarming smile (I admit I was a bit smitten), she said “This will do just fine. Good work.”

The day the winners were announced, I was almost indifferent. A number of folks involved in the auto industry in our area had been selected to be the panel of judges, and I continually told myself that I was crazy for entering. As I no longer have the picture that I made, I’ll describe the idea I presented.

In my estimation, terrains could slowly change at any time, even in the most developed of urban environments. For the next 200 years, things could remain relatively the same. But what about a few thousand years into the future? Earthquakes, river beds drying up, and other possible shifts meant that humankind would have to continually tame their ground environment in order to stay mobile.

Most folks thinking that far out were probably moving into designs of air based vehicles, and even with Star Wars and the world of     in my head, I just never believed that sky traffic would really work for that many vehicles. To think about cars using the atmosphere above ground for transport meant the entire design of cities, with tracks weaving throughout, and cars that looked more like tubes than the vehicles of today.

I began to think about dinosaurs. Big legs. The capacity to walk virtually anywhere that was not too deep. If they did get in over their heads, I would think that some dinosaurs had learned to swim to the other end of the body of water. Furthermore, humans can not only walk, but they can jump, hop, and run. In fact, the rate of human accidents of people running into one another had to be much lower than that of cars running into one another.

In my adolescent mind, a “vehicle of the future” (at least one of the pack) might be a vehicle that had no wheels at all. In fact, given our capacity to increasingly analyze the mechanics of the human body, we might learn to access the more intricate designs of the Creator in our mechanical, if not biomechanical, designs for transport in millenia to come.

My drawing was this. Imagine a sphere, suspended on legs (I went for inverse knee joints to humans, i.e. more like a chicken or the hind legs of a horse). The legs rose to about 20 feet in the air, and the sphere was large enough to  house a family. The vehicle could walk, run, hop or jump (an act sometimes more dangerous even to humans), and would live in road world that had its own set of speed limits, rules, etc.

Now that I think back on it, it had some similarities to the Snow Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, but the design was different enough that it didn’t seem as though I was ripping off George Lucas for my concept.

They announced the winners.

First place went to a young man from a nearby city whose automobile drawing skills would surely land him in a high end art program at some university, or a job designing cars for an automaker of his choice anywhere in the world. “He’s good,” I thought.

Second place went to a girl from a different city as well, whose car design I barely remember. I do remember thinking, however, “She’s cute.”

Third place went a young man from a small town called Middletown in South Central Pennsylvania. As the newspaper cameras flashed around him, and a handshake and passing of a check were caught on film, he felt like he was in someone else’s body living someone else’s life.

A judge spoke up, which hadn’t been done for the first and second place prizes. “This young designer was thinking innovatively when he came up with his idea. His design was so unusual, yet so foreward-thinking, we just had to place him in the top 3. Many designers think from the inside out, starting with what we already know. He started from the outside in, and took us to a new concept. That’s why we’re awarding our third place prize to Dan Wilt.”

After all, he didn’t draw cars. He didn’t even like them. “He must be creative,” I thought, when I saw him win the prize. “Or at least that’s what they must think.”

While I don’t expect to win any more Car Design Of The Future prizes ever again in my life, I do hope I never lose the ability to think from the outside in.

After all, the outside edge may be the best vantage point from which to see what’s really needed on in the inside, and the process of invention can begin.

(p.s. For an interesting article on new car designs, see this.)