Automobile futurist Harald Belker on style, substance and the green revolution


Long before Uber mainstreamed on-demand ridesharing and Google built its self-driving car, Harald Belker reimagined urban transportation infrastructure as a network of autonomous, alternative-fuel vehicles that appeared to be as practical as they were exhilarating.

The Mag-Lev system that Belker designed for Stephen Spielberg’s 2002 film “Minority Report” is still the stuff of science fiction movie magic, but the possibility that today’s kindergartners will someday hail a computer-controlled electric car for their daily commute is looking more and more real each day.

For Belker, the future of the car lies somewhere between the freedom of accelerating on the open road and the frustration of his morning drive along congested Washington Boulevard from his home in Marina del Rey to his daughter’s school in Culver City.

For “Minority Report,” Belker also designed an aggressively sporty two-seat coupe for Tom Cruise to flaunt outside the boundaries of Washington D.C. circa 2054.

The future of automobiles must be safer, more efficient and eco-friendly, he argues, but it should also allow space for fun.

Belker, 54, began his career as an automobile designer for Porsche before joining Mercedes-Benz in California to design the precursor to today’s two-seater Smart Cars.

From there he transitioned into film, designing the aerodynamic, v-shaped Batmobile that appeared in the 1996 film “Batman & Robin.” He went on to design the hovercars for the 2012 reboot of “Total Recall,” the light cycle for “Tron: Legacy” and numerous other land, air and space vehicle concepts.

Belker’s latest project has been designing the miniature artificial-intelligence race cars for Anki Drive, a racing game in which players use an app-controlled system to interact with physical race cars. Anki Overdrive, an upgraded version of the game, launches this weekend.

— Joe Piasecki

What kind of thinking went into designing the ‘Minority Report’ cars?

We looked on the bright side — what would happen if we really made technology work for us. That started with why we, as humans, are still driving. It would be much more efficient if driving was autonomous, so we spent a lot of time coming up with a complete system, thinking about how traffic would be managed. With the Mag-Lev, you sit in a capsule — my job, of course, was to make that capsule very attractive — and it’s bi-directional, so it doesn’t matter which direction you go, and you can enjoy video display while you go to work.

The beauty of it was now your vehicle was an extension of your living room. We always thought mass transportation is not very appealing to people who have money; they want to be in their comfortable environment and they don’t necessarily want to deal with people. That’s why it’s so important to show a mass transportation system with very individual vehicles.

Funny story: When I first presented the Mag-Lev vehicle there were no buttons on it. Everything was voice-activated. And then Mr. Spielberg asked, “Where are my buttons?” I asked why we would need buttons, and he said, “Well, what is my actor going to do?”
It shows that sometimes you have to come back to today’s reality.

What do you think of the eco-friendly cars of today’s reality? They can look kind of boring …

It’s true. The Prius is not the prettiest thing to look at. I don’t know why that is so often the case [with electric and hybrid cars]. It feels like they’re saying it’s efficient, it’s environmentally friendly, but let’s not make it too sexy. I don’t get that mindset, really.

In film you want something that makes the audience go, “wow.” Like in “Total Recall (2012),” with these hover vehicles. Not that the system made sense in many ways, but at least the vehicles were fast-looking and there was a potential for seeing the fun in driving in a system that was controlled by a computer.

That’s going to be more difficult as we get closer to autonomous cars. It’s very important that, even though the car drives by itself, we still put the love we have for cars into designing that sort of vehicle. You have to want to get into it. It can’t be this taxicab kind of feeling. Even though we may not individually own cars in the future, that feeling of being excited about getting into a car should not be designed out.

A panel at this weekend’s AltCar Expo in Santa Monica will discuss how ride-sharing could make it impractical to own a car in a city.

I was on a panel once where this guy was presenting a map of a mass transportation system with trains going everywhere throughout Los Angeles, a network costing billions of dollars. I didn’t say this to him then because I didn’t want to bum him out, but if autonomous cars happen that system is obsolete. Once you’re on the train it’s very nice, but how do I get there? How do I find a parking spot? If you tap an app and a car shows up at your door to take you wherever you want, that’s the perfect scenario. You don’t need a car sitting in front of your car unused for hours. But then you don’t need a mass transportation system anymore, either.

I personally love the idea, because I drive up and down Washington Boulevard [from Marina del Rey] to Culver City every day. The difference between catching all the lights versus stopping at every red light can be 15 minutes; so it’s either a 15-minute drive or a 30-minute drive. If that was all controlled, you would have no red lights because you wouldn’t need them anymore. A little bit like on “The Jetsons.”

What was it like designing cars for mass production versus what you do now?

At Mercedes-Benz in California, we were supposed to be a think tank of the future. Back in the 1990s we had a program called 2020 to think about the future of automobiles. At that time we designed the Smart Car. In the beginning it was an all-electric car. It took over two years; we joked that we were designing one meter a year. But you learn the hard way when you work for a corporation that, as an individual employee, you have very little to say. The day it was revealed at the Frankfurt Auto Show, Mercedes had made a deal with the designers of the Swatch watch, and at that point it became the Swatch Car. Mercedes was afraid because it wasn’t really a luxury car, it was a little risky. That started me thinking that this may not be the right thing for me.

What’s your favorite car in commercial production?

My emotional connection is to really old cars, like the Jaguar D-Type. Once we left the ‘60s, I think cars became much more functional, not so emotional.

When I started studying automotive design, I realized how I was not looking at the whole car anymore, I was looking more at details. I almost find it impossible to like one car completely. There are some cars that have great presence. You have the Mercedes SLR, for example, but at the same time I can find something very cool when I look at the details on a mid-sized Ford.

What makes a car cool?

In my eyes, cars are cool if they have a presence that reflects movement. What I mean is, you see them sitting there and it feels like they want to jump forward. They have emotion within them.

What kind of car do you drive?

When I’m on Washington Boulevard I drive a Ford F-150 truck, because I’m a kite surfer and I need space for my gear. For the days when I feel free, I drive a 2003 Porsche 4S.

What’s your best guess about the future of the automobile?

Cars should not kill anyone anymore. That’s the first thing that will be a part of the car of the future — the car takes over when the driver is not in control anymore.

But making fully autonomous cars is not just about designing the cars, it’s about changing the infrastructure. This has to do with how we perceive cars. For everyday traffic, going through the city, I’d love it if I didn’t have to drive. But I still like to take my Porsche out of the city to drive it, we’ll say, beyond the legal limit. So what happens with all the people who love to drive?