The curious unimportance of visibility in modern car design.
An oft-noted, yet insufficiently regretted, development in car design in the past 20-odd years has been the ever-rising waistline of the average automobile; a development that, combined with increasingly thick window pillars, has had a seriously negative impact on visibility out of the car (not to mention the effect on interior ambiance).
Looking around at the flanks of cars nowadays, one might be tempted to conclude that designers were simply desirous of a larger canvas upon which to draw their favoured creases, slashes, folds, curves and gashes but the general tenor of response to said development suggests that safety demands are at least partly responsible for the ever-decreasing glasshouse of our personal conveyances.
Whilst there is undoubtedly some truth to the statement that safety concerns (and legislation) have fostered developments such as thicker pillars and higher bonnet lines, it seems equally true to observe that car manufacturers have gone rather further than was necessary.
I recently read (in the IT news site ‘The Verge’, of all places) of the latest model of tank… forgive me, SUV developed by Cadillac, which they themselves describe as the largest and longest Escalade ever. This behemoth of a machine is almost 2 metres tall and features a cliff-like front end, the visual design of which suggests something intended to mince any pedestrians foolish enough to venture into its path.
Indeed, the writer in question also published a picture of his three-year-old child standing in the huge front blind spot of the car, caused by the sheer height of the front end (far taller than the child) that was chilling to view. In the US there has been some media attention surrounding the blind spots caused by large SUVs and when Cadillac themselves were asked about this aspect of the Escalade’s design, they pointed out various automated alert and safety systems such as pedestrian braking in their defence.
This does not, however, adequately explain the existence of the problem in the first place. Perhaps such things should not surprise me. A little while ago, I was delighted to receive the news that my father had replaced his Nissan Juke, a car that itself had replaced the splendidly practical and well-designed Nissan Note on my parents’ driveway.
I had been a happy passenger in the Note many times, enjoying the acres of room that it’s boxy design afforded passengers and the pleasant airiness of it’s light interior. All the more shocking to be exposed thereafter to the purgatorial experience of being a passenger in the Juke; a car that doesn’t so much sacrifice comfort and practicality on the altar of style as much as it does hang, draw and quarter them, followed by a ceremony of the dark arts intended to desecrate their spirits.
The Juke’s shallow windows and strangely curved body shape did not just create a cramped, dark and claustrophobic passenger compartment (hardly helped by the black-on-black with black highlights interior trim) but also severely hindered visibility out of the car, as is the case with so many current models.
On one occasion, I was in the car as my father was attempting a parking manoeuvre and noticed he was having trouble getting into the spot. I was shocked to see that, as he was trying to reverse into a space, he was not actually looking out of the car at all but was staring at a screen in the dashboard, upon which a helicopter view of the car and the space around it was displayed, relayed from tiny cameras mounted around the Juke’s bodyshell.
As a technical accomplishment, this parking aid was highly impressive (it also showed a visual indication of the angle at which you would reverse, given the amount of steering lock applied) but, as with the aforementioned Cadillac, begged the question why the system was made necessary by bad basic design.
Do not misunderstand me; I am not opposed to useful electronic aids such as parking sensors. In fact, I’m delighted that a primitive version of these is fitted to my new Rover’s rather lengthy posterior. My complaint is that styling seems to be necessitating such things, rather than allowing them to be aids.
The really strange thing is that, outside of rarefied environments such as this site, no one seems to mind; I have yet to hear a single non-enthusiast complain about the frankly comical size of the C pillars on many modern cars and the accompanying terrible visibility, presumably because everyone just stares at the screen instead.
So is there any hope at all of a return to the slender car bodies, slim pillars, expansive glasshouses and airy interiors of the late 20th century? Well, in a sense no: Whilst slim pillars can also be strong (just ask Saab), if such things also need to hold airbags and electronics they will inevitably grow in girth. There is however, quite some distance between the product of this necessity and the bizarre excesses currently displayed in car showrooms. Monsters like the Escalade are completely inexcusable.
Perhaps one day self-driving cars will make all of this moot and we will be left staring wistfully at faded pictures of Fulvia Coupés and the like. In the meantime however, it would be nice if car designers made a little more effort to make their products driveable using the windows, rather than the screens.