There's No Reason a Self-Driving Car Should Look Like a Car, and This Volkswagen Doesn't.

©. Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft

Back before self-driving cars were a thing, Toronto's Institute Without Boundaries held a design charrette to dream up what cars might look like in 2040.

movie martini

Institute without Boundaries/ movie and martini mode/CC BY 2.0

They concluded that they would be shared, lighter and smaller, electric and they wouldn't look much like cars. In fact, just about the only thing they got wrong was that it would take until 2040 for this to all happen.

discover-SEDRIC Video Short Version from Presskitservice on Vimeo.

Now Volkswagen is proposing Sedric, (SElfDRIvingCar, get it?) "the first Concept Car from the Volkswagen Group. And it is the first vehicle in the group to have been created for level 5 of autonomous driving –in other words a person as a human driver is no longer required." It doesn't look much like a conventional car; it is a container, a box with a silly face on the front made of LED headlights and what looks like a giant CD-ROM slot.

Sedric sketch

© Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft

Or that could be the back, it is hard to tell. Apparently the face is there for a reason: "The language of design used to create Sedric is friendly and empathetic, and immediately generates spontaneous trust." But it's tough, too. " Sedric conveys a robust character, safety and reliability within its muscular flanks and stable roof pillars."

I am not sure about reliability when it has those wheel skirts and barely a couple of inches of ground clearance; this wouldn't last a week on North American roads. But the key point about the design is that there really is no focus on the front of the vehicle; the seats inside face both directions. There is no pretence of there being a driver, no place even for a driver to sit.

sedric interior

© Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft

The key difference to all other present-day automobiles is immediately tangible in the interior. Sedric does not have a driver. The steering wheel, pedals and cockpit are therefore superfluous. This permits a completely new sense of wellbeing in the vehicle – a welcome home feeling. Sedric is a comfortable lounge on wheels, equipped with carefully selected materials.

sedric with doors open

© Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft

The smartest thing about Sedric is that they threw out the rule book about car design. "Its body concept offers compact dimensions with the opportunity to have a generously proportioned interior. Sedric has been designed without the classic proportions of an automobile and lacks elements like bonnet [hood in America] or shoulders."


© Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft

The dumbest thing about Sedric is the silly garden on a shelf; They claim "Sedric really does have green technology on board: air-purifying plants positioned in front of the rear windscreen enhance the effect of generously dimensioned bamboo charcoal air filters." Except they show succulents, cacti, that don't do anything but sit there.

One of the biggest problems for car manufacturers is that if these autonomous cars are shared, then there will be a lot fewer of them because they will not be parked 90 percent of the time. This is bad for business if they only need to make a fraction of the number that they are making now; the market is driven by private cars. But the company still thinks people will want to have their own instead of relying only on shared vehicles.

But Sedric can equally well be an individually configured owned vehicle of one of the Volkswagen Group’s brands. Volkswagen is confident that many people will continue to want to own their own automobile in the future. After all, this new automobile is intelligent, it’s always available and the car even carries out functions independently. Sedric will drive the children to school and then take their parents to the office, look independently for a parking space, collects shopping that has been ordered, picks up a visitor from the station and a son from sports training – all at the touch of a button, with voice control or with a smartphone app – fully automatically, reliably and safely.

Now that is a seriously problematic vision. Switching to AVs was never going to reduce the number of cars on the road; it was going to eliminate the need to park them. Now the idea is that they will be running around on their own picking up the dry cleaning and dinner; that means more cars, and a lot more congestion. All the benefits that accrue from not needing parking or garages are lost.

vw bus

Volkswagen bus ad/Promo image

But ignoring that, there is a lot to love about Sedric and the idea that the self-driving car is a totally different kind of vehicle and doesn't need to look like a conventional car with an engine in front and a driver's seat looking forward. It should look more like a Volkswagen bus than anything else. This makes so much design sense.