When There Is No Driver, Car Interiors Can Go Wild

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Mercedes will show its latest autonomous car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Passengers will face each other, but what if that makes some of them carsick? (Graphic: Mercedes).

It took a long time before car designers realized they didn't have to deal with a horse. That may sound funny, but the first “horseless carriages” looked just like, well, carriages. And it’s going to be just like that as we switch to self-driving cars. It’s a challenge that calls for out-of-the-box thinking.

Most of the autonomous cars I’ve ridden in are production models with lots of extra wiring, sensors and cameras. There’s still a “driver’s seat,” even when there’s no driver. But Mercedes has just shown some colorful concepts it plans to display at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, and they show some forward thinking.

Interior of Mercedes self driving car

Another view of the Mercedes interior — think train compartments. (Graphic: Mercedes)

The four seats face each other around a small central coffee table, as is common in certain railway compartments. The front seats swivel around so you can also face the front. That’s important for people like me, because I get carsick facing backwards in a moving car or train.

Mercedes — whose CEO, Dieter Zetsche, will talk about self-driving cars in his CES keynote speech — is testing autonomous cars at a northern California naval base. The testers are unlikely to have the fanciful interior shown in the drawings, but at least the designers are thinking about it.

Michael Robinson's concept for driverless cars

Designer Michael Robinson's concept includes getting rid of auto glass. (Graphic courtesy of Michael Robinson)

But why do self-driving cars need windows, which add a lot of weight? Michael Robinson, an American auto designer based in Italy, also envisions face-to-face seating, but he likes the idea of OLED screens that can show the news, movies or become transparent to offer a view of the passing scene.

Robinson conjures up an “intelligent digital chauffeur” who will take “Home, James” type commands and take cues from your past behavior. “A stop at the bar on the way, perhaps?” Some of these features are incorporated into the Rinspeed Budii, a “trans-urban concept car.”

Rinspeed Budii includes swivel seats

Seats swivel in the Rinspeed Budii. (Graphic: Rinspeed)

The Budii is “designed to be the perfect chauffeur that quickly adapts to the habits and preferences of its ‘boss.’” Self-driving cars will “keep learning every day, and as a result will get better at mastering the complex challenges of modern-day private transport,” said Frank Rinderknecht, the company's founder.

The Budii hedges its bets, though. It still has a steering wheel, albeit one that can be moved from the left to the right side.

Rinspeed car of the future

Rinspeed's car of the future: Give it a destination, and off it goes. (Graphic: Rinspeed)

But self-driving cars won’t need steering wheels or dashboards (maybe an “anticipated time of arrival” readout), pedals and gear changes. They can maybe seat six with the extra room from taking those things out, and I’m guessing they’ll have workspaces, coffeemakers and microwaves. The best seats in the house will be in the back. Maybe a sliding door on one side only?

The best scenario: You walk out of your front door, and the pre-warmed car is waiting for you, a hot cup of coffee in the cupholder. You hop in and the car off, because it knows you go to the office on Tuesday morning. (Hmmm, this is still old thinking — you’ll be a telecommuter by then.)

Let’s think out of the box here. Better, let’s throw away the box and start over.

On video, designer Robinson does a deep dive on his self-driving car concepts: