Thomas Thwaites

How could you build a harmless car?

Researcher: Thomas Thwaites website: //

Text: Theun Karelse

The most harmefull object ever created?

Thomas Thwaites was settling his young daughter in the back of his car in Londen. The girl was crying profusely. “How right you are”, Thomas thought to himself, realising just what a terrifying object the car is. If industrial design is a way of transferring harm from one place to another through the creation of objects, then the car has transferred harm through countless millions of instances of roadkill, human tragedy and excessive pollution.

He decided to design a harmless car. Harmless to all forms of life, an impossible ambition, not unlike the Jaineist position of ‘Ahimsa’, to be utterly harmless, not only to oneself and others, but all forms of life, from the largest mammals to the smallest bacteria. What better location than ARTIS to build such a car, in the presence of a wide range of beings, from the elephants to the minute bacteria at MICROPIA.

Thomas sitting in a first sketch after day 1

Mechanical monstrosities

The concept car must be one of best known examples of design forecasting in our material culture. It is so engrained into our psyche that anyone recognises it not as an existing product, but as the embodiment of an ambition. But cars were once an unknown phenomenon. There is a revealing anecdote from the appearance of the first cars in Pennsylvania, where farmers said that cars spooked the livestock and traveled so fast that drivers kept running over chickens and hitting cows or horses. They where so alarmed that they formed a protest group. The Farmers Anti-Automobile Association set up a list of demands, perhaps with some level of irony, to control the impact of these dangerous new devices.

From this list we can get a sense of just how revolutionary their appearance was in our environment. People were absolutely terrified of these mechanical monstrosities traveling at speeds up to 40km per hour through the pastures.

The Anti-Automobile Association therefor demanded:

  • 1.) Automobiles traveling along country roads at night must send up a rocket every mile and then wait 10 minutes for the road to clear. The driver may then proceed with caution blowing his horn and shooting off roman candles.
  • 2.) If the driver sees a team of horses approaching then the driver must stop, pull to one side of the road and cover the car with a blanket or dust cover which is painted or colored to blend into the scenery.
  • 3.) If the horse is unwilling to pass an automobile on the road the driver must take the car apart as rapidly as possible and conceal the parts in the bushes.

Cars now dominate our landscapes, but in most ways they remain as alien to the environment as they were when they were first seen.

Helping hands weaving willow

Weaving a car

Thomas decided the first step should be the construction of the chassis from willow, a material that can be sourced without permanent damage to the trees. With the help of TU Delft professors who calculated stress patterns within a cars body, a visit to vintage wooden-wagon builder Toon Wortel and after a crash course of weaving by expert weaver Piet Hein Spieringhs, Thomas started constructing his harmless car from a large pile of willow branches just next to the ZOOdio in ARTIS, under the watchful eyes of visitors of all ages and animals of all sizes. (Ants were first to take seat in the car, even before humans.)

Figuring out how to construct the body

Prototyping branch by branch

Visitors absolutely loved it and after a few days they actually started guessing what the object was, but were still surprised to hear this was not going to be a willow sculpture of a car, but an actual working prototype.

Where to start though?! Thomas had no previous experience either in car design or weaving. Piet Hein had shown some basic techniques, so it really became a process of figuring out the project branch by branch.

A family helping to establish the size of the car

Audiences to be driven over

The ambition for the harmless car is to carry a family and to drive some section of road. Some elements are beginning to get clearer, others remain nebulous. Of great importance to Thomas are the wheels of the harmless car. The current set are just there as place-holders. The wheels should be giant balloon-like things, so the car can drive over anything without crushing it. Many children visiting the zoo have volunteered to lie down and be festively driven over by the harmless car. This remains a distant dream for now, but the body of the car proudly stands in the Zoo and after the final event in the Groote Museum, will be transferred to Zone2Source to be continued..

Thomas on the final day of his resicency