Road to nowhere

Design - Hugh Aldersey-Williams bemoans a lack of radical thinking about the motor car

It is the convention for exhibitions about cars to include somewhere within them a statement to the effect that we love the car. They may adduce evidence - advertising images, road literature, whatever - but often the statement goes unsupported. The Royal College of Art in London, marking the 30th anniversary of its influential vehicle design department, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with a "forward-looking examination of automobile design and its impact on society", fit the pattern.

This is not the case with other artefacts. There is, for example, an exhibition presently at the Crafts Council of contemporary basket-weaving. Does it begin with reassurances about how much we love the basket? I doubt it.

We do love the car, of course, after a fashion. What's odd is that its propagandists have to keep reminding us, and themselves, of the fact. They are whistling in the dark, stalling for time, running on empty. If they keep telling us how much we are in love with the car, the hope is that at least we may question it less.

The RCA exhibition tests our love: the college's galleries have been made to resemble that most unlovely environment, the underground car park. It includes uncomplimentary snippets from writers as varied as Wilfred Thesiger and W H Auden. There are figures for the number of people, badgers and hedgehogs killed on Britain's roads every year. There is a lively catalogue with essays by unlikely characters such as Brian Sewell, whose contribution consummates an equally unlikely union of The Wind in the Willows and the Futurist Manifesto. But in general, critics of the car are dismissed as just more "conspiracy theorists and environmentalists". Of course, since more than £1 million of Ford's money has been spent to put the show on, one expects to find that the car's the star.

The surprising thing is how dull the exhibits are. The RCA includes a few halfway measures. The Volkswagen Noah, a 1996 concept six-seater, is good of its type. A souped-up bicycle powered by a lightweight ceramic engine - a "conversation piece" by the design company Seymour Powell - is interesting, but too far away from meeting car-like constraints to really belong here.

Even allowing for the comparative novelty of small cars in the United States, Moma's "Different Roads" offers by now familiar scenery - the Ford Ka, the Rover Mini. The designs connote progress of a kind. But what are they doing at Moma? The Mercedes-Swatch Smart car is one of the ugliest things ever to roll on four wheels.

Christopher Frayling, rector of the RCA, professes to detect something new among the students' renderings and models and the commercial concept cars that never made it. "There are nuances. Twenty years ago, the only difference between these concepts would have been the wheel colour. You have to be able to read the language," he says. If only there were time to induct me into the priesthood.

Christopher Mount, curator of the New York show, takes the same line. "Think of all the criteria that a designer has to satisfy and the kinds of things consumers are concerned with when buying a car. I would argue that these cars are all more inventive and revolutionary than most product design today. Has the chair really changed very much since Rietveld, Breuer or Panton?" Maybe not. But where are the Rietvelds and Breuers and Pantons of the roads? At least invention is permitted in furniture.

And where, more to the point, are the designs that could possibly integrate with an integrated transport policy should one happen along? There are none. Frayling does nominate one project, but it is not in the exhibition. It is a crane by the 1999 graduate Matthew Weaver that uncoils like a tape measure, taking up less road space. It displays the kind of imagination designers are meant to show, but which seems to be suspended in the special case of cars.

So let's try a different tack. Dare not to see the car and car designers as special. There is no field of design that is more conservative, none less willing to reinvent itself, none less interested in reacting to changing - yes, dare to say it - environmental circumstances. And here's why. It is Frayling's boast that two-thirds of the cars on the road today have had a graduate of the RCA course involved in their design. All but one of the RCA's 58 graduates in the field are employed "at the right level in the industry". Only two have been women, but that's another story. "If the future is about gender and ecology and so on, then things will have to change," Frayling concedes.

This is in striking contrast to the national figures for design graduates, where a tiny fraction go into jobs in which they actually design things. The tight vocational loop - car manufacturers employ graduates of a course devoted to car design which naturally takes on students already obsessed with cars - produces instant gratification for those whom it subsumes and inures long-term conservatism by insulating the car industry from radical thinking.

There are signs that this cosy world is slowly changing, with some car manufacturers beginning to appoint designers who have not come off automotive courses. But change would come faster if "vehicle design" were simply part of general product design. Furniture design, a discipline whose practitioners are similarly known occasionally to disdain ordinary product design, has already been merged at the RCA, apparently with some success. Cars should be designed by people capable of framing the problem to be solved as one to do with personal transport in an overloaded environment, not by overgrown schoolboys with fists full of felt pens drooling at the chance to sketch their latest dream machine. Let them drive off into the sunset, but force them to display this bumper sticker: "My other concept car is a bike/train/bus."

"Moving Objects" is at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7, until 19 September; "Different Roads: automobiles for the next century" is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 21 September