Car stories are about relationships. They’re about collaborating, and going places, and figuring out new things together. Yes, they’re about cars. But they’re about much more than that.

We found that when you ask a diverse group – from China, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United States – to design a car experience, you hear the most amazing stories. The result of this discussion in our Spring class, ME 236, Tales to Design Cars By, was an incredibly welcoming space for imagining, making, building and racing a unique car adventure. This became our EXPE 2014 exhibition, where hundreds of visitors experienced class projects and workshops throughout Stanford’s Mechanical Engineering curriculum. I would venture to say our display was unlike any other on the floor.

In our class, episodic memory, empathy, and collaboration were key components of the students’ experience. Those fundamentals became the core part of our EXPE display.

Arriving at our exhibit, one of our students encouraged attendees to pair up with another person, sit in a car seat and respond to various prompts. The first, ”draw a picture of a car adventure,” was open-ended but made simple by the constraints of time and space (their story needed to fit within the frame of a medium-sized blue post-it note). Over 100 visitors thoughtfully sketched and then exchanged their adventure perspective with their partner. They took turns as driver and passenger, talking to each other about what it was like to sit in the other person’s seat – to visit another person’s adventure story. Then, they attached the post-its onto a wall that found threads across various themes, including: Road Trip, Racing, Romance, Family, Danger, and Accomplishment.

These stories revealed some interesting trends. More than half of the female attendees told adventures primarily in the Road Trip and Family categories, while a majority of men told Racing and Danger adventure stories. A balance between the sexes was found in many Romance stories.

The draw-an-adventure exercise was just the beginning of this paired car storytelling opportunity. There were multiple physical touch points that brought out new stories, including an experience where participants sat in a room where the seats moved to simulate a race track.

For this experiment, each duo lived a racing adventure together while hearing the sounds of a race track roaring in the background, including screeching tires and the whoosh of a turbo engine, all the while they bounced up and down as they sat, poised to race, in the moving bucket seats.

Participants of all ages focused intently on a raceway of their choice: a windy and scenic mountainous road or a famous track, depicted on the large screen, and talked back-and-forth to each other while accelerating hard on the pedal. But speed wasn’t the only goal. One participant kindly said to partner, “I need to drive slower so that I can hear what you are saying.”

This display was inspired by our discussions in class, where our students were often inspired by their own episodic memories, also referred to as ‘snapshots in time.’ One student recalled her personal adventure stories of her parents taking the family on a road trip to Mexico, all the while dressed in pajamas. Another student deferred his story, stating, "Because I have 'zero' episodic memory, I will rely on my grandfather's..." Then, he relayed how his grandfather identified the original owners in a home town with only three cars! Yet another took us on an audio tour of the sounds of the Okinawa racetrack of his youth. We heard from a student who told us about growing up in India, and how his parents told him to use public transportation before he graduated to using an automobile. Another told us about his youth in Saudi Arabia, with snapshots of lions sitting on Lamborghinis and young men sand surfing fancy cars. Many told us about learning experiences behind the wheel with their parents and grandparents.