Smart Design On What We'll Really Want From Robot Cars

Forget the Jetsons: Smart Design’s Dan Saffer on how we should interact with the automobiles of the (near) future.

Every Saturday the robots take over. The apartment whirrs to life with the mechanical sounds of machines as they remove stains from clothes, scrub dried food from plates, and vacuum dust from the floor. There’s the muffled thunk of the wet clothing boulder tumbling in the dryer. The chug of the dishwasher, the waves-in-a-box crashing against glasses that were once sand. And the loud whine of the Roomba rolling across rugs in its almost incomprehensible zigzag pattern to eventually and inevitably crash into the startled dog.

How is a dishwasher a robot? Well, about a decade or so ago, a magic ingredient began being built into our appliances, and that ingredient—the secret robot sauce—is sensors. Sensors generate data, and data can be acted upon without human intervention. In other words, these devices can do things themselves without asking. Sure, I turn my dishwasher on, but from then on, it knows how dirty the plates are inside and adjusts itself accordingly. I can offer guidance—by pressing the Power Scrub button for example—but I don’t have to tell it every detail of how to do its job. Using the sensors built into it—its inner eyes—it figures out how hard it needs to work.

This is obvious stuff, and you probably don’t even think about it anymore, because ceding details to a dryer or vacuum cleaner is trivial, inconsequential. But imagine a 4,000-pound robot under its own control barreling down crowded city streets filled with vehicles and pedestrians.

Which brings us to cars.

Your car is your new robot. Been in a new car lately? A high-end car is a veritable bristling cluster of sensors connected to electro-mechanical systems. Almost any part of the car that can have a sensor attached to it now does—right down to the tires (which soon will be able to inflate themselves). They can already park themselves, and it doesn’t take a highly paid futurist to know we’re only a few years away from having them drive themselves.

Our cars—like our dishwashers—have secretly been robots for a long time. We’ve had sensor-driven automatic braking systems for decades. The difference between then and now is the amount and visibility of the autonomy our robots have. It’s one thing to have a machine invisibly helping to slow your car, quite another to have it parallel parking for you.

Don’t get me wrong: the automatic parallel parking (when it works) is frigging amazing, especially in urban areas where parallel parking is some kind of spectator sport. Having the car maneuver itself into a parking space is like the first time you saw a magician pull a bouquet from his sleeve at a kid’s birthday party: total magic. You can’t believe it’s happening. On the streets, people still stop and stare. It’s like the fulfillment of a promise from a millennium ago, when objects would come alive and do chores for us. And think about how many times you would pay $10, $20, even $50 just to get the damn car into the damn space.

But there is something weird about it. Unsettling. Maybe it’s the scale: Cars are BIG. Big things moving by themselves trigger primal instincts. Like perhaps you’re about to get run down by a charging rhino. Or maybe it’s that it’s happening in public. Cars are a weird public/private hybrid space; the inside is yours, the outside is the world’s. Having the car do things for you exposes your inner private world to the outside.

Robot cars also bring up our worst SkyNet/Terminator fears. Have we created robots we can no longer control? Because control is exactly what we’re giving up. Sometimes this is great; giving up control is something we as humans crave. See: alcohol, drugs, sex. GPS navigation, especially when combined with traffic data like in the navigation app Waze, is an awesome kind of giving up control, even if it takes you on routes determined by algorithms that feel inhuman in their almost Roomba-like zigzag paths through the city streets. When the car is driving itself, you might not notice or care. Heck, you might not even notice or care now because driving is (primarily) a chore. It’s pretty clear that most people, given the choice, would rather be texting.

For decades, we’ve been shown car commercials with drivers zipping around mountain curves or through the desert. This vision is far removed from the driving experience many of us deal with every day—gridlocked highway traffic, congested city streets, and grueling, teeth-grinding commutes.

Is it possible that car travel, like airline travel, has lost its glamour? It seems likely. Cars are the expensive, often ugly, boxes we’re trapped in for hours a day that are also destroying the planet with every high-priced gallon of gas they consume. It’s no wonder people under 30 are saying no thanks to cars whenever possible, using services like ZipCar only if they must.

In part, this is what is fueling the rush to turn your car into your new robot. By putting more technology into cars, they’ll become more interesting again. That’s the theory. And it’s not a bad one. (As witnessed by this article alone, it might even be working.) It’s a safe bet: In the past 15 years, every piece of technology you probably own has significantly changed—except your car. Even if you have a brand new car, it was designed at the soonest three years ago. But as designers—and particularly car designers—know, having a personality (manifest in the form) matters. We’ll overlook a car’s flaws if its personality is something we respond to. The trick now is having that personality in not just the body of the car but also in the behavior of the car as well. How it "talks" to you—sometimes by actually talking to you à la KITT from Knight Rider—through its interfaces: the screens and controls now in the dashboards and center stack of cars. Making those screens have personality while not distracting from the road is a good trick.

And then there’s the tyranny of screens. The car was one of the few places left without a glowing rectangle visible. No longer. I suspect, however, this is a temporary situation, that luxury will demand that screens be mostly hidden, that the interface will become (once again) the steering column, and physical controls shall reign again. Or maybe not, maybe screens will become background, their UIs more subtle, more glanceable, less demanding of our time and attention. Voice, gesture, and haptic feedback will mix into the physical and touch-screen controls we’ll use to text, check Facebook, read the news, and, oh yes, drive from place to place.

What will this feel like, riding in our new robot cars? If the experience of being a “driver” in our new cars isn’t designed well, it could feel like we’re trapped in a public taxi, surrounded by screens blaring at us. Robot car is a robot, after all, not human. But there is also another way it could be: like having our own private driver who knows our preferences, our daily routes, the right temperature settings, and how much control of the car we want. These cars will have a personality—although not too much personality—and they’ll know us and conform to us. Their sensors won’t just be trained on the roads and their mechanics; they’ll also be trained on us. They’ll observe us, get to know us, and adapt to us. Our robot cars will respond to being spoken to, and even to unspoken cues by not interrupting us when we’re busy or tired. They will be our moving exoskeletons, acknowledging and respecting our very humanity yet compensating for our limitations by having superpowers like 360-degree vision and the ability to parse traffic data. This is how carmakers will build brand loyalty. We will love our robot cars, and never dream of jet packs again.

[Image: Robot via Shutterstock]

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