Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Design Theater

Google’s driverless car doesn’t have a steering wheel. Why would it? The car has a computer system which gets the car from A to B better than a human can. Sure, it seems weird to get into a car with a completely barren dashboard, but there’s no point to it. But some car companies are still going to put steering wheels into their cars.

With all apologies to my fellow humanities majors, there’s a word for pointless endeavors: theater. When the TSA requires airline passengers to remove their shoes before getting on a plane, that’s security theater. When your phone’s digital camera makes the noise of an analog camera’s whirring shutter, that’s design theater.

NYU Law’s Karen Levy and Tim Hwang (of Robot, Robot, & Hwang) wrote an excellent introduction to this second kind of theater. Putting a steering wheel in a driverless car is a 21st century design theater. Here’s what the 19th century came up with:

Other design theaters are aimed not at providing direct usability cues, but at smoothing technologies’ entry into social life by increasing their acceptability. An early example is the Horsey Horseless, an 1899 vehicle design intended to coexist with horse-drawn carriages. Horses were spooked by the strange new cars on the road; the Horsey Horseless was, essentially, “a car with a big wooden horse head stuck on the front of it,” which doubled as a fuel tank.

It’s not clear that the Horsey Horseless was ever produced, nor that it would have worked as planned, but its intentions were clear — to present a misleading social cue (to horses!) that would help make this new contraption less scary and easier to live with.

Even more impressive: I’m given to understand that horses in the 19th century were also driverless.