Toyota built a wooden concept car?!

I'm a big fan of concept cars and I've written about them in the past. They are often horribly impractical and will never come to market, but they often present a unique presentation of a particular concept or feature that can point a way for the future of the car.


Toyota introduced the Setsuna, a wooden car intended to be a family heirloom. Hand crafted out of wood using "traditional Japanese joinery technique called okuriari which does not use any nails or screws."

I think it's kind of cute, even if it looks like a life size pinewood derby car.* And while I don't expect to see Toyota Setsuna make it to a dealership, it does pose an interesting question about how we will view internal combustion cars in an electric, self-driving car world. Will they be heirlooms as Toyota seems to imply with the Setsuna? Or junk?

* My daughter and wife think this car looks like Barney Rubble's car from the Flintstones. Maybe they are right, but I like it anyway.

Why would Apple build a car?

Everyone is talking about whether or not Apple is building a car. Reporters have speculated. Lots of smart people have weighted in. And while I'm not sure that Apple's working on a car, I wouldn't be surprised if they are. For one, very specific reason:

The electric car is the single most exciting design opportunity in generations. 

Everyone has focused on the software possibilities. The integration between computer and electric car. But changing from gas-powered to all-electric is more than that. An electric car removes the engine, emissions system and gas tank. These changes free designers to experiment with new configurations and to reinvent the automobile. The limitations of over a hundred years of automotive design are removed. 

And yet, all of the electric cars on the market still look mostly like... well... cars. The Leaf, Tesla Model S and BMW i3... even though they don't need room for an internal combustion engine, they still look similar to gas-powered automobiles. 

There are reasons for this. Crash test standards are based on non-electric cars. Marketing a completely new concept is challenging and risky. Aerodynamics are vital to achieve maximum range. Car manufacturers have (logically) stuck with what has worked in the past. And once upon a time, phone manufacturers thought physical keyboards were an irreplaceable feature for smartphones.

Apple's a disciplined company. They will only release a car if they can make a profit. But of all the reasons for Apple to tackle the car, I can think of only this: Whoever masters the design of the electric car will shape automotive design for the next hundred years. 

(One more footnote... Mainstream car makers don't really experiment with new materials. The one exception that I can think of was Saturn's plastic body panels. And that didn't turn out so well. Apple loves to explore materials...)