Update: see comments for some corrections from the co-founder of Automoblox, which I will also include inline.
The toy concept is rather novel, as a sort of hybrid of LEGO and the good old fashioned wooden car, where kids might find something novel to do with them at many different stages in their development. The really young have a nice, sturdy toy car; as they develop, they might be inclined to take that car apart and put it together differently in mix-and-match ways, or just to explore shape recognition with the various sizes and shapes that each slot and tab has. With all the various parts that can be disassembled, from the car’s body in three sections, to the various interiors and hoods, to the little people to act as passengers, there’s practically no part of this toy in any of its incarnations that can’t be taken apart and put back together.
Evidently in the design process, though, nobody thought about what might happen if a kid decided to try to put one of the female passengers into the lefthand driver’s seat. It’s actually completely impossible to do so, owing largely to the rotational chirality of the female passengers’ slot-and-tabs. Note: this is apparently only true of the sportscar models, and other car models (and cars for other countries) include women in the driver’s seat by default.
I absolutely love toys as a method of learning. Considering how much of our development depends, and depends very heavily, on how we practice certain cognitive skills during play, providing a kid with a toy that engages and teaches them at the same time is a great boon and one of the best uses of our privileged society — to better the lot of our next generation in any way we can.
The design of this toy is both innovative and the crux of my problem with it, however. When you’re making a slot-and-tab type assembly rig, it’s often quite important to make it such that the slots and tabs only fit together one way, so people don’t put the parts together upside-down or backward. Sometimes, like in the case of the Automoblox where the goal is to encourage experimentation with the individual parts, the chirality of the slot and tabs serve as something of an impediment.
See the break-apart image pulled from their M9 Sportvan. The fact that some parts only go together one way means you can only build a functional car in a more limited set of circumstances,
but the inserts can be pulled out and flipped around if you so choose you can evidently turn some models of cars’ middle sections 180°, so that impediment is slightly mitigated in most cases.
As you can see here, there are four passengers: two male as represented by the larger, broad and barrel-chested figure, and two female, shorter with smaller heads and tapered bodies. The two males have a circle or square base, and the two females have a triangle or star shaped base. Here’s where it gets interesting — the insert that provides the base for the passengers has slots explicitly made for circle, square, triangle or star, to allow for practicing shape recognition when the child’s of the appropriate age.
However, only a circle or square is in the driver’s seat, and that seems to be the case in every model’s exploded view that I’ve seen, as evidenced by the staggered layout of male/female in some pictures, since you can only see the front passenger in this view and it’s definitely a triangle or star. James Sweet speaks from personal experience with the toy, where his son owns a set, and the problem exists in the one working copy we’ve seen between the two of us. It appears the insert can be removed and rotated, which would work to put a girl in the driver’s seat, except the slots are not rotationally symmetrical — in other words, you could put a woman in the driver’s seat, but you can’t make her face straight forward the way you can with a man. It is, at absolute best, completely problematic putting a woman in the driver’s seat in one of these toys.
This is an excellent example of an enforced gender role that, even if we try to correct the issue ourselves, we cannot, by design. If a shape had been used that had rotational symmetry, like a four-pointed or six-pointed star, then the problem would disappear. You could then put a woman in the driver’s seat if you so chose. Having the male as the default driver is one thing, and it’s even a bit of entrenched male privilege I’m okay with, given that I do the majority of the driving between Jodi and I. However, the fact that it’s impossible to fix that bit of privilege for, say, single moms whose kids would rather build a car that has Mommy in the driver’s seat like it is in real life, that’s something different. It’s a problem and it should be addressed.
I, like James and some of his commenters, suspect this is a “bug, not a feature”, and that the problem stems from the fact that nobody in the testing recognized this particular example of privilege. I will be forwarding this blog post to them as a commentary on the design via their contact form, and will recommend that in the next iteration of their clever toys, they get even cleverer and fix this oversight.
I reiterate — I do not consider Automoblox to be inherently sexist. I would, on the other hand, like to offer the solution that would prevent them from having multiple model presses for multiple scenarios, where they could simply make the inserts for the passengers rotateable and the passengers’ shapes rotationally symmetrical. This would probably lower their overall build costs by reducing the numbers of molds they’d need, and would eliminate entirely the need to choose between a man or woman driver in any particular model.