The technology around self-driving cars continues to advance rapidly, but arguably it will be design that plays the biggest role in gaining public acceptance and mass adoption. We ask designers about the challenges ahead.
Whether it’s freeing up your morning commute or the hassle-free drive home after a few drinks there’s something massively appealing about the driverless car. And from Google’s talks with Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen to the Mercedes-Benz F015 Luxury in Motion, it is looking inevitable that autonomous automobile technology will play a role in our future.
Technology and potential uses aside though, what challenges do designers face in encouraging drivers to relinquish control? What should travelling in a driverless car feel like? And are our existing car designs the best starting point?
The Drum sat down with five of the most respected voices in the UK design industry to discuss their thoughts on the future of driverless cars and what they’re looking for as designs evolve.
Dominic Wilcox, artist, designer, inventor, Dominic Wilcox Studio
The driverless vehicle seems to be an inevitable part of our future lives, particularly in the wealthier parts the world. The question is what advantages will they bring?
One group that could benefit are the elderly and people with disabilities, who can't drive themselves. Instead of being stuck at home or reliant on others to get around, they will be able to own a driverless vehicle that will take them wherever they wish at a moment’s notice. One of the main challenges of driverless car development is coping with the random nature of pedestrians and human-controlled vehicles. An option may be to separate the two and create motorways that only allow driverless vehicles on them.
The road observes the position of the cars and the cars are aware of each other’s position. In this way they can move at high speed but very closely together, almost like train carriages. You arrive at a boarding point and get inside your chosen vehicle – perhaps an office space on wheels or a dining car. It then joins the motorway and speeds along to your chosen drop off point while you finish a book or eat your fish and chips. Personally, I feel sickly when I read a book in a moving car, so that’s another problem for designers to solve.
Many worry about the safety of automated cars but then I remember people being nervous about the thought of driverless trains that we now use regularly. I think once computer controlled cars are proved to be safe or at least much safer than manual cars then people will drop their concerns in favour of comfort, reliability and time saved.
Richard Seymour, founder, SeymourPowell
There’s an old joke about a guy who asks directions for travelling to London. The bystander retorts ‘if I was going to London I wouldn't start from here...’
The so-called ‘driverless car’ is another example of extrapolative thinking that could easily get us into entirely the wrong place. Why should it be a car for starters? And who holds the most promising technologies to achieve the idea of safe, individual, autonomous transportation? Well, it’s not the auto industry, in my opinion. We’re still driving around in a hydrocarbon-driven thing, with two rows of seats, steering wheel, foot pedals and windscreen wipers since it appeared in this form well over 100 years ago. The toy drone however, has gone from military spin-off to very low cost, GPS navigable plaything in less than a decade.
100 per cent reliable, intelligence-based autonomy is decades away. The idea of trying to pile all those smarts into a self-contained object in the short-term is a nonsense. But an intelligent infrastructure isn’t. Think pod, not car. Think mobile architecture. Think a rich, directed company that makes things better by changing the rules. Think highly-distributed intelligence with centralised control and individual choice.
It’s the Apples and Samsungs that will make this happen, because they don’t have the dead hand of history and tier one suppliers on their shoulders.
Nik Roope, founder and executive creative director, Poke
I’m not interested in the first driverless car. Or the second. I’m interested in the moment when there are 20 competing models. What will be the difference?
Identity and brand, certainly. Attitude expressed through the packaging, performance, utility. New formats will certainly emerge. Seats that face backwards to create a social, communal space like coveted train-seat configurations around a table. I mean, why face forward when you don’t need to see where you’re going? And, of course, an integral sick bucket for all those who choose to exploit the boozebinging potential when there’s always a sober, cyber driver to whisk you home at your beck and call.
The thing we’re not expecting, and yet feel I can predict with some confidence, is how the car’s ‘attitude’ will all of a sudden become a powerful exponent of driverless brands. Which brands will let you go through in a busy morning jam? Which will squeeze in front of you and block the way even if a more generous manoeuvre could have let you through? Will products hard-wire these driving ethics in or will owners set them? Will there be a ‘nice button’ for gentle Sunday drives and a ‘nasty’ one for Monday morning? With machines in control, our bad attitude is not our fault, right? What happens when the trolls hit the road? Well, I guess we know the answer to that already.
Clive Grinyer, customer experience director, Barclays
At the dawn of motoring a man with a red flag walked in front of any motorised vehicle. As we enter the age of auto-sensing vehicles, has the car gone full circle, regulated and programmed to avoid obstacles and vehicles and take us to our destination without human intervention? Do we really want that?
Our relationship to the car veers from deep love and reverence of the beauty of engineering performance and form to the discomfort of traffic congestion and the horrors of road accidents. The driverless car appears to remove so many of the negative issues of car driving, improving safety, aiding traffic and energy efficiency, and just making parking easier. But for others, the car is the last bastion of freedom, an expression of our character, wealth and even gender.
I hope we never lose the emotional passion for engineering and form or the experience of driving and integrate the advances of automation into safer, more efficient cars that allow us to remain at the wheel with a feeling of being alive. Otherwise, I can take the train.
Matt Round, creative director, Tangerine London
The driverless car of 2025 is only two model changes into the future, ignoring subtle annual updates to a base model. Look back at the Golf and think about how much it has changed between any two generations.
So we need to think about how much change we can entice consumers to accept. Right now, they imagine the benefit of having a few beers or that extra glass of wine in a restaurant and being able to be driven home by their own car. The reality is that under current regulations, they will still need to be able to take control of the car at any given moment. So for 2025, we need to imagine what the steering looks like, how we alert the driver when they need to take charge, and we need to overcome the disappointment of technology not living up to expectations.
By 2030 and 2035, regulations will no doubt no longer require the driver to take control in an instant, and manufacturers will be able to deliver the drink and driverless ride home. The focus will then be on how we maintain the fun of driving. Simply removing the steering wheel and placing a number of seats into the space will not be enough to truly engage drivers, whatever their role may become, with a new concept of driving.
Designers and brands need to lead drivers from their current behaviour into forming new expectations and new habits for the future. We need to think less about the road mapping of generations of products and take on the really tough challenge of creating the cultural road map that takes consumers to a new point of view.
This feature was first published in The Drum's 18 March special driverless cars themed issue, which is available now from The Drum Store.