LA has long been celebrated as a city of “mobility,” a place that was about relishing its freedom of movement as much as staying still, and where people identified with their cars as much as their homes. But now the region has become immobile. Recent studies find that LA has among the worst traffic in the nation, with LA drivers wasting around 60 hours annually behind the wheel; the LA 2020 commission found that traffic would not even be relieved by all the new public transit currently under construction; the report found drivers would shave off a mere three minutes from their drives.
So should we throw up our hands in frustration and accept that we are in a permanent state of staying still? Or are there ways to keep moving, with the style and panache we enjoyed for so long, along with a commitment to safety and cleaner energy?
These are the questions we will be asking at Reinventing The Wheel, a public event about the future of mobility taking place May 18. In a large garage space at Helms Bakery, some of LA’s smartest designers and thinkers about mobility will come together to talk and showcase ideas about moving, from the latest in bike and eBike design through to the Hyperloop and the infrastructure that has to change to keep us moving.
One of the speakers will be Harald Belker. After studying car design at Art Center College of Design, the German-born Belker worked for Porsche and Mercedes before going on to design cars for Batman and Robin and Minority Report. He is currently head of design at Anki, an interactive video game involving robotic cars. He also created one of the early eBikes and has published books on his motorbike and racing car designs. DnA spoke with Harald in his Marina del Rey home-office. Listen to the interview, above, or read it below.
DnA: Given the state of LA traffic are you optimistic about design for mobility?
Harald Belker: I have to be as that is my job and my concern. Working in movies I have the freedom to create an environment or an infrastructure that works with my vision or the vision of the director. It’s a little bit more difficult in real life because there are more obstacles. But there are a lot of signs that show there might be a light at the end of the tunnel because I don’t think it can go on like the way it is.
DnA: And “the way it is” is total gridlock. What would you say to Angelenos is the way forward?
HB: Well, it’s not that easy because even with mass transportation you still have to go from your endpoint to your work or wherever you have to go.
This is simpler in Europe because things are closer together; so there’s a big problem, which is, how do I get to the train station from home — because nobody really wants to walk ten blocks.
So if we love the individualism of driving our own car there have to be applications or some sort of navigation – and I think they already exist, we all follow little apps that checks the traffic everywhere — that can be part of a car today and then a car can take me ways to avoid gridlock. So I can circumvent the issues that come with driving. Currently everybody drives on the same road, everywhere. So I think there are lots of possibilities.
DnA: Still, these are solutions connected to the car. You are not saying that the answer is to get out of the car. After all, Angelenos do still love their cars.
HB: They do, but there are ways to drive less. I’m doing my bit, I work from home; that is one way of getting out of traffic, and in the neighborhood I ride my bike, and I think everything is getting friendlier toward the bike. So there are many ways of getting from Point A to Point B.
DnA: You have designed cars for reality but you famously designed cars for the movies, specifically the automated cars for Minority Report. Can you revisit that film and tell us about the thinking that went into those cars, which proved to be very prescient?
HB: Yes, well in Philip K. Dick’s fiction we were in 2054 so we could change a lot of things. And the way it played in Washington DC there wasn’t any way to really expand the city, so we wanted to show an ideal of how we can still have our individual freedom but be part of a mass transportation system.
So it is all computerized; you are on the Maglev system because that is fanciful and beautiful. And the point was that your vehicle is an extension of your living room; you get in and then tell the vehicle where you want to go and the car figures out the best route to go there. I mean, who really actively wants to drive from traffic light to traffic light in gridlock? There is no passion or interest in driving in city traffic anymore so why not automate the whole system and in Minority Report we got to explore that.
DnA: But how applicable is it? Some experts argue that it will never be possible to fully automate a car or program it to anticipate the unexpected like a child running into the street.
HB: I don’t believe that. I think there are so many ways with radar. Look at the higher end cars these days; on your map they show you a satellite image of your car driving with the surrounding traffic in real time. So why can’t a car have that feedback and really scan the environment? I don’t understand why we have accidents today. The technology is there; it’s really just about whether we will pay for it.
DnA: For automated cars to work don’t all cars have to be automated?
HB: Yes, that is the issue. You start at some point and you have to refurbish older cars to be part of that system; and it will be a process and at some point legislation has to kick in — just as with the catalytic converter many years back – and mandate that you have to have the system as part of your on-board system.
DnA: Currently you are head of design at Anki, a consumer robotics company, and Anki is an interactive video game that involves manipulating cars run on artificial intelligence, and this offers a taste of the future for automated cars, is that correct?
HB: Yes, and the beauty is that you can 100 percent run on AI or you can take control of the car. As soon as there are applications for real cars, who says it could not be part of our daily routine and traffic?
DnA: Explain how this game works and how one moves the cars.
HB: In the beginning the car is learning, or the system is learning, because you log in to your car and you start racing around, and because it’s a game you are shooting at other cars – it’s a game after all and that makes it fun. But the car gets smarter and smarter and faster and is continuously learning how to drive and what to do and how to drive with you as driver and at some point you accumulate so many points you can get upgrades and additional weapons, because it’s a game. It’s a learning process and we have that already in computers. If you have your iPhone, it learns things just by your behavior and its interface with the computer.
DnA: So what kinds of things might it be learning? Can it pick up on a nervous driver or overly confident driver, for example?
HB: Yes, absolutely. I’m very sure that after a certain time the computer can pick up your behavior and then correct it as well, for example, if you do certain things that aren’t really legal. Then the question is, who is in control?
DnA: How far away are we realistically from cars this sophisticated?
HB: If you leave it to car companies then it won’t go the full extent. It won’t be in their interest; they will say it’s in their interest but financially I don’t see how it can be. It has to come with legislation. In California we are already very conscious of exhaust and pollution; why not take a step further and make California a showcase of how it could all work?
DnA: You’ve also worked on the design of an electric bike. Who did you design it for?
HB: We were really ahead of our time with the eBike, I think it’s been over ten years now.
I designed it for Lee Iococca (former CEO of Chrysler); he was retired and he thought after being involved with cars for so many years he has to do something good for the environment so we did this first all-out eBike that you can control with a thumb throttle so you didn’t have to pedal at all. I still have one in the garage and it’s pretty fantastic.
eBikes were not that accepted back then; but more and more you see people riding an electric bike on the bike trail. In California we like to exercise so one can ask what’s the point of riding an electric bike?
So it has to be your transportation to work or to go get things; it has to replace the car in many ways. That means we need much safer roads – I wouldn’t be caught dead riding my bicycle on Lincoln Boulevard – so again it’s the infrastructure that is at the bottom of any change that we are going to apply.
Hear Harald speak, play his game Anki and see his eBike and books about electric motorbike and racing car designs, all at Helms Bakery on May 18. Click here for information and tickets.
Images from top: Harald Belker; Precrime Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) sits in the automated car in Minority Report; robotic cars for Anki video game; Anki game is played on a rollout “blacktop”; electric bike designed by Harald Belker; Guide to Future Racing, book of racing car designs by Harald Belker.