Zambikes, Zambulances

This is cool

From Zambikes via Afrigadget,

In fact, I think it’s more than cool… I think it’s the future, of a kind.

If web-designers designed cars…

…and we do know a bit about design do we web-designers. We live in a vicariously-Darwinian, fast-breeder hot-house. Evolution is really sped up in the crucible of the market. We share. We recombine. We move on.

Video-recorder controls aren’t designed by web-designers; iPhone interfaces are – and it’s not to say that the real genius of design isn’t happening somewhere else, or that we’re not still cocking it up a lot but… there are sets of principles that we design to, like:

1) separate style from content/function

2) manual-free simplicity

3) de-couple systems so different parts can be swapped in an out easily

4) design for resilience, flexibility, robustness, speed, scalability, under-the-hood clarity

5) platforms rather than control-systems

etc etc.

Traditional product design doesn’t do these – in fact it often does the opposite, and profits from doing the opposite – creating fake scarcities, and micro-monopolies. There is (for example) a special part of hell where designers of laptops are strangled forever with the non-standardised power cables. Every 5 years (or whatever it is) the average Westerner spends about a year’s worth of wages buying a ton of steel and glass, that is used to carry around a single person… who doesn’t (in spite of their best efforts to the contrary) weigh a ton.

But that’s shite, it’s dying and it deserves to. The symbol (and often reality) of 20th century freedom and independence has turned into a millstone, and it belongs in a museum (and in a genre of K-for-cool movies like Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point) That spirit is gone. A car is now a series of monthly payments.

So anyway, if web-designers designed cars, the chassis, engine, body, control-systems, electronics etc etc would all be discrete and swappable sub-systems. You could reskin your car, rather than having to buy a new one every 5 years… only you probably WOULD buy a new one every 5 years anyway, because as I say, we operate in a fast-breeder evolutionary hot-house. We don’t do what the car-industry does – which is produce basically the same car, but with minor (diminishing-return-on-R&D) enhancements… since the 70s.

I mean take a look at this:


Now that, My Learned Colleagues, is a poster-child for an industry that has run out of ideas. The preposterousness of monument-building always peaks just before the fall of an empire. I think it’s over. I think they’re finished.

The Zambikes and Zambulances on the other hand, are just beginning – and I think they’re the mammals that will survive where the dinosaurs can’t… and I think this because they’re the beginnings of a design that is modular, decoupled… the Early Vehicular HTML under the hood etc etc. When open-source cars start kicking in big-time (and they will) this is how they will start. They won’t come from the big car manufacturers


If you turn that around the other way, put a little engine on it, give it the aerodynamics of a plane, then you’ve got a home-made Aptera.


A long shot you reckon? Remember, legally, an Aptera is a type of bike… and that’s another reason why innovation is probably going to happen around 3-wheelers, rather than 4. Less Industrial-Giant-Friendly regulation.

Admittedly, an Aptera is an answer to a particularly Western set of needs… but that’s ok, because if you’re starting with a design where the sub-systems are decoupled, then you can adapt it to do whatever suits the local conditions.

4 Comments » for Zambikes, Zambulances
  1. Brill. I knew our culture was fully cooked when all the wild toothbrush designs started showing up a few years ago. Have you seen these monstrosities?! Composite rubber plastic nightmares. Unnecessary multi-million dollar R&D, slick ad-campaigned bobs of environmental waste, etc. Or the tennis shoes with built-in French Ticklers, or the pro-athlete perfumes. It’s Rome again.

  2. Nick Taylor says:

    I can remember feeling twinges of disquiet when I noticed they were selling “sports chocolate” about 20-odd years ago.

    It is Rome… but that’s ok, because we are the barbarians at the gate… finally getting to see the Empire for what it is, and being so disappointed and horrified that we actually turn round and go back to our farms.

  3. Kieran says:

    A bit late to the party, but I’ve been following some of your car posts, and thought I’d weigh in.

    First, I feel pretty strongly that bicycles will play a big role in the future. But then, they’re older than the car, and there are still twice as many of them around. And they remain the most energy-efficient means of moving goods or people over land in existence.

    They also fulfil many of your design principles. Everything is at least somewhat standardised and interchangeable, with the only rigid factor on a given bike being the frame geometry.

    As for style/function separation, a bicycle may be a little too simple to achieve that, beyond minor choices of paintjob/decals. You *can* go throwing aerodynamic shells over the things, but that only really works for recumbent bicycles, and eliminates one of the major advantages of a bicycle (high situational awareness). I know you’ve waxed lyrical about the “problem of privacy”, but really bicycles are the opposite — they solve a problem of social exclusion by allowing cyclists to participate and engage with the pedestrians and cyclists around them. Those aerodynamic shells are also pretty far from the ideals of simplicity, robustness, interchangeability, etc.

    Anyway, the one problem I see going forward with bicycles is that there has been a move (since the 80s) away from designing them for durability, comfort and efficiency, and towards trying to replicate (badly) high-end racing designs intended only for shorter distances. At the same time, there’s “stealth inflation” (the same thing costing less money than at a previous time, in adjusted dollars, due mainly to decreasing build and material quality rather than progress in production technology). In the context of bicycles, this means that you can now buy a shitty replica of replica of a racing mountain bike for around $200, but can bet that many of the parts will perform poorly to begin with, and something will break within about six months, and that it will do a really poor job of getting you around town.

    Sadly, in the video, this is pretty much the kind of bicycle they’re handing out. Those Shimano Tourney derailleurs, for instance, are a bike mechanic’s nightmare. To quote a mechanic from the bike coop I’m involved with “A lot depends on the type of parts. If it’s a Tourney, you’re almost guaranteed to find something wrong with it.” (Not to knock Shimano — their higher-end stuff is much better).

    If you look at what people in the developing world are using, it’s largely 30+ year old bikes that are still running with a bit of attention. Unfortunately, I don’t see the bikes donated in that video lasting too long, and I would have preferred if they could have gone and found better-built used parts instead.

    But I guess this is the way of favela chic — shittier build quality, higher quantity, everything throw-away. It just seems like a waste of energy and raw materials to me, though. I mean, compare and contrast 70+ year old Singer sewing machines, or the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed internal gear hub. Give me that kind of design!

  4. Nick Taylor says:

    Really? I never had problems with mountain bikes breaking. I’d generally spend £100 on the bike, then buy a decent seat for it… then a mega-lock (London etc). I don’t think I ever had anything break on any of them – from about 1996 to about 2006. Had several stolen though.

    re: Aerodynamic shells – not so sure. Carbon fibre is getting to be pretty strong, and they could be designed to be interchangeable – which is a trait of the underlying frame as much as the shell. If these things are coming from an open-source philosophy then I’d guess that they’ll be reskinnable – much the same as software is. There will be entire sub-cultures of case-mods. I’m talking about re-skinning car-type things rather than 2 wheeler bikes though.

    I think maybe the build-quality will improve when we start moving away from mega-industries and towards localised production… ie: getting away from corporations that pathologically optimise for scarcity. That is where the crap build-quality comes from. There are economic drivers that “reward” it… but I think that that era is coming to a (quite bumpy) end.

    re: The advantages of open vs closed… sure, but both are evolved traits – so no matter what happens down the line, you’re going to get both. There are aspects of a covered design that are simply too useful… socially and logistically. I’m not talking about making pedal-cars though, I’m talking about electric-three-wheelers… maybe with human backup. As a platform for innovation there is so much more that can be done with them.