Why Should Self-Driving Cars Look Like Cars?

©. Volvo via 1843

Writing in this month’s Economist 1843 Magazine, Simon Willis looks at the design of self-driving cars. Volvo’s chief designer Robin Page tells him: “It’s the most exciting period in the history of car design, a new world is being opened up.” It is a flexible space: “You can have six people sitting round a table which then turns into a bed.”

But Volvo’s illustration of the car interior looks so much like a car, with two seats facing forward. But the car is no longer just a car, it is now a kind of “third space” says Hartmut Sinkwitz of Mercedes, “a hinge between home and office.” Alas, the “third space” is a term that Ray Oldenberg described as the anchor of a community, the local bar, restaurant or coffee shop. But of course it is now going be appropriated by the car.

Car as living room

© Steven M. JohnsonThis is ground that has been covered before, in 2013 with Allison Arieff’s article in the New York Times. She illustrated it with Steven M. Johnson’s image of a car tuned into a living room and suggested we might be spending a lot of time in it:

If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive.

driverless car

America's Independent Electric Light and Power Companies/Promo image

Playing games around the table in the car has also been on the table since the 50s. It was going to be electric, too.

pat rendering

Institute without Boundaries/Screen capture

The Institute Without Boundaries ran a charette that I was part of years ago where they concluded that there was no need for it to look like a car at all; it could be a box covered in interactive screens. All these years later, The Economist’s Simon Willis talks to Dale Harrow, a professor of vehicle design who notes that since these cars will rarely crash, they don’t need air bags or crush zones. “We’ll see more glass in the bodywork, as in modernist houses, and the lightweight materials you get in contemporary furniture: seats made of pale plywood or moulded carbon fibre. You could ride along in an Eames!”

Or, for that matter, a lazy-boy recliner; Ford Motors has found that even their engineers who are supposed to be able to control their self-driving cars are falling asleep at the wheel. According to Bloomberg,

Company researchers have tried to roust the engineers with bells, buzzers, warning lights, vibrating seats and shaking steering wheels. They’ve even put a second engineer in the vehicle to keep tabs on his human counterpart. No matter -- the smooth ride was just too lulling and engineers struggled to maintain “situational awareness,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief. “These are trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening,” Nair said in an interview. “But it’s human nature that you start trusting the vehicle more and more and that you feel you don’t need to be paying attention.”


© Ross Lovegrove

Ford, like Google before it, no longer believes that you can actually have a human safely behind the wheel of a self-driving car, and you have to go straight to full automation. So it really isn’t a car at all, it is a moving living room, bedroom, or even a gym. It can look like anything, even like Ross Lovegrove's car on a stick. But as a tweeter noted, getting into a car to get exercise is pretty silly: