I wasn’t sure if the initial idea for this machine would
work out. I feared it might turn out either too childish or cause too much
‘offence’. But an initial idea is only ever a starting point, it’s
the process of turning it into a physical reality that’s always the
interesting part. During the process, ideas always change. At the time I’d
been experimenting with possible ingredients for future machines when this
road crash mechanism worked much better than I expected.
First prototype video
The theme came from my weekly visits to my mum, who lives
in a posh suburb of London with a school at the end of the road. The chaos
at the end of the school day with so many badly parked huge cars and the
tiny children in their mum’s enormous Chelsea Tractors (SUVs) often made
me laugh. The cars are the parents’ battle tanks for protecting their
children. In this respect they work well – a recent survey found that
collisions between large heavy cars and small light ones resulted in the
occupants of the small cars 12 times more likely to die. Though socially
unjust, its also true that road deaths generally have fallen massively
over the last 50 years so everyone is safer than the used to be.
Then as an engineer, I’m astonished that these enormous
vehicles weighing around 2 tons, with the fully electric ones weighing
even more, can be considered ‘green’. The amount of energy consumed by
a car is roughly proportional to its weight. While its fashionable to
think that electric cars are the future I’m not convinced the current
generation are even as green as a 1950s Citroen 2CV. Weighing four times
less, it could do 60mpg and with modern efficient petrol engine could do
Second prototype video
The technical challenges of making the arcade machine
interested me. Its always hard when parts physically bump into each other
to find good ways to prevent them destroying each other or jamming the
machine. They have to physically make contact or the game is no longer
fun. So for a couple of months I carried on propelled by the challenge to
see if it was possible, still doubting the initial idea. The covid
lockdown had just happened so there were no distractions. I discovered
several things that encouraged me to persevere. To my surprise, the crash
mechanism worked even better with the car above the pivot point, balanced
by a spring. Then realising that the paint on the car and the obstacles
would get ruined by the constant collisions, I found that the car could
hover 25mm above the road while still looking OK, and also that I could
protect the obstacles with 2mm carbon fibre rods which didn’t look too
visually distracting. (The rods came from Rex’s workshop, I’ve no idea
what he used them for but I’m sure he would be delighted to know they
had found a good use).
I then started carving the little wooden characters for
the scenes. I enjoy carving and this was a smaller scale than I’d tried
before, which was interesting. I realised the magic I felt about the first
rough prototype came partly from my childhood memory of the 1930s Wonder
Book series, of which we had many. What I most loved were the fly leaves
at the beginning and end of the books. At the start would be an elaborate
cartoon scene of people doing things, and at the end was the same scene
with every element transformed into chaos. When I made my book of cartoons
(Almost Everything There Is To Know) in 1987, I had the chance to do my
own version. This prototype seemed a mechanical version of the same idea.
I was also thinking of Buster Keaton. Awful stuff happens
but he always carries on oblivious. I wanted my accidents to be, as Buster
Keaton called them ‘prat falls’, cartoon-like rather than bloody. When
Bill and I finally fixed all the painted scenes into the machine they had
charm. The accidents had the gleeful anarchy I was hoping for though maybe
some people will still ‘take offence’. Children are now so shielded
from stuff like this but maybe exposure to some politically incorrect
ideas are a useful balance. I also recently read that for artists to ‘get
on’ in the art world, they now have to subscribe to current politically
correct ideas - so it felt good to be going in the opposite direction.
So as I worked the machine became as much a general
celebration of irreverence as a satire of SUVs and their owners. It
touched my constant amazement at today's risk averse
mentality and sensitivity about causing offence - so different from the 1960s and 70s counterculture of my
youth. I was never a hippy but loved the opportunities offered by the
breaking down of barriers. The counterculture was so energetic and
creative, and gave birth to lots of technology (particularly the personal
computer). For me it was particularly the ending of closed shop unions
which enabled me to make films and create museum galleries. It was a brief
period of freedom, long since extinguished by today’s mind numbing
This change was amazingly similar to the historical
transformation during the early 19th century. My favourite
period of history is the late 18th century, the so-called ‘enlightenment’.
It was a time of fearless experimentation and excitement about technology,
the start of the Industrial Revolution. By the mid 19th
century, this had been replaced by conventional stuffy Victorian values.
At the time the Victorians felt they were morally superior. They felt the
Georgians of the 18th century were crude and unsophisticated.
In some ways they were right. Passing laws to protect animals and children
at work and end slavery were definitely progress. But the sparks of
open-ended discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship suffered. The
enlightenment started the industrial revolution, but by 1850 Britain was
no longer the workshop of the world.
Anyway, returning to the '2 Ton School Run', my initial
idea was that you would have answer the kids questions while driving but
once the machine was playable, it was
obvious that the real fun was trying to hit everything rather than avoid
them. It had never occurred to me before that most games are about hitting
targets rather than missing them. It’s uncomfortably similar to a
notorious 1980s video game called Death Race where you had to mow down as
many pedestrians as possible, turning them into tombstones. Wikipedia’s
games is fascinating, but also to me
depressing. As the decades have passed, people have objected to more and
more subtle details of games.
As the machine neared completion, I tried many different
variations for the verbal instructions but they basically were all either
moralistic – “you have no idea of the destructive power of your SUV so
now’s the time to find out”, or anarchic – “Your kids are safely
in school so now you can go wild”. I don’t know why I dithered for so
long, the moralistic ones just felt fake.
As I write, its been on the pier a couple of weeks and I
haven't seen anyone hesitate to flatten everything in the car's path. I've
often heard parents and grandparents encouraging their children to hit everything. I
obviously had no need to so anxious about it and now I'm annoyed at myself
for allowing today's 'fear of causing offence culture' to get to me. I
suspect people who think like this are a tiny minority but their views
have been amplified by the media.
The hardest part of making the machine was working out how
to detect every collision.
The obvious way to do this would be to have a software ‘map’
of the road, with specific locations tagged as collision points.
Unfortunately, though possible, this is clunky using my PLC controllers.
But I also found that the position encoding sensors got out of step after
a few collisions. A simpler more robust system is to use contact sensors
on the car. My previous machine ‘Celeb’ works in this way. However
making the sensors sensitive enough to a hit at any point round the car
and also proof against false readings was so hard I eventually gave up.
What worked best in this case was a combination of 2 systems.
First, when the car touches an obstacle it tips the
section of road enough to trigger a switch which powers the road section
to fully rotate and reveal the flattened version of the scene.
If for some reason this fails, or the car hits the side of
an obstacle rather than head on the second system is activated. Both
horizontal and vertical movements have encoders. Also the motors are belt
drive, so the torque can be adjusted by the tension of the belt. The PLC
simply detects if a motor is powered but the encoder isn’t registering
any movement, and then reverses the relevant motor for a second or two.
At the end of August about 800 people had used it and so far it seems
to be working fine, though I've had to adjust the torque limiter on the
vertical drive a couple of times.