A look at the weird intersection of taxidermy and car design

We generally think of vehicles as artificial, inanimate machines constructed of steel and plastic. But what if the cars we drive are built with the evolution of microorganisms in the back of our minds and kinship with nature? Kia, Hyundai, and Genesis are exploring this worldview with a team of young scientists and artists at the world-renowned Rhode Island School of Design.

Hyundai Motor Group (HMG), the parent company of the three brands, launched the RISD and Hyundai Motor Group Research Collaborative in 2019. It is now in its fourth anniversary; this unique collaboration is geared towards exploring the connections between art, nature, and design for the benefit of humanity. Utilizing terms such as “biologized skin” for robots and “chemotaxis processes” to describe movements, the group of professors, students, and HMG designers and engineers, challenges traditional notions about how machines work.

This article will provide information about projects RISD students have designed in the hopes of advancing Hyundai Motor in the back of their minds.

Utilizing slime molds to imitate autonomous vehicles

While evaluating a brand-new 2024 Kia Seltos surrounding Providence, Rhode Island, with journalists, we stopped at RISD to talk with students who were part of the program. In a Future Spaces and Autonomous Vehicles project, students explored the next steps for autonomous cars using research-based techniques and design-focused thought.

One of the presenters, 2023 graduate Manini Banerjee was a student at Brown and Harvard before transferring to RISD and asked us to think about what a car could do when organisms, not algorithms, controlled it.

Through their study, Banerjee and her lab co-worker, Mehek Vohra, discovered that each autonomous vehicle could process 40 terabytes of information per hour. This is the equivalent of the typical usage on an iPhone for 3000 decades, Banerjee says. The issue, she claims, is that processing data and storage relies heavily on carbon-emitting data centers, which can only increase global warming. Vohra and Banerjee decided to discover whether there’s a chance for organic, sustainable, data-free navigation.

[Related to: In the laboratory where there’s expanding the number of computers].”

Using a slime mold as a vehicle, the researchers observed how the organism grows as it learns, adapts, and grows. In a maze made of cardboard, the slim mold replicated the motions of an autonomous vehicle. During the research, they observed that the slime mold mastered locating the maze’s center by detecting light and chemicals in the surrounding. Can we replace data processing that relies on carbon with an ecological solution? Yes, Banerjee says. ( According to Texas A&M, slime molds can be found in nature as a “blob,” similar to amoeba. They can engulf food sources, which are mostly bacteria. As a result, The University of Chicago was involved in using slime mold on smartwatches in 2022.)

“Civilization has been measured by this distance between the natural and the built environment,” she told the group. “We’ve begun to build that space with technological advancements.”

“Turn away from blindly pursuing innovation.”

Nowadays, engineers and designers take a look outwards to gain a better understanding of physiology patterns that occur in nature, as well as beauty. The future of cars and nature as partners is the main focus of this RISD and HMG collaboration.

There are approximately 100,000 taxidermied specimens from the RISD’s Nature Lab collection; it’s at par with the world’s top natural history museum and was established in 1939. Students can check out an item from the lab, just as they may take a book from the library to study. For example, learning the wings of a Kingfisher might spark an idea of colors, patterns, textures, and their utilitarian. The bones of a pelican to find strength points or how the insect’s wings repel water could help improve the way automobiles are constructed, too.

This RISD group is looking at ways to deal with entropy, disorder, or uncertainty in a system and how it can improve rigid mechanical processes. Sustainability is also a significant factor in this research, which means that researchers need to know how materials break down rather than contributing to climate change and waste. Together, these two ideas provide the basis for the notion that technology and engineering can be programmed to have inherent decline (a time limit, or expiration date, as you like) with the speed of human invention.

“The intent is to turn away from blindly pursuing innovation and toward creating living machines that may restore our relationship with nature,” Banerjee declared in her TedX talk earlier in the year. “If we can understand the creatures we work with, we will not have to harm, modify or kill the organisms. We can go from being “nature-inspired” to “nature collaborative.'”

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