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The Biggest Design Opportunities In Driverless Cars Aren’t What You Think

Killing the steering wheel is only the beginning. Seymourpowell’s Matthew Cockerill considers three key design challenges ahead.

The Biggest Design Opportunities In Driverless Cars Aren’t What You Think
[Illustration: Seymourpowell] [Illustration: Seymourpowell]

For a century, our cities, and our lives, have been defined by the car. In the beginning, the car delivered an exhilarating experience and immense personal freedom. It was an aspirational product that marked our progress and status in life. But we are now at a point where a combination of congestion, higher ownership costs, pollution, accidents, advances in technology, and viable urban transportation alternatives is starting to make the car unsustainable in its present form. The transition from cars to driverless cars–and a shift from private ownership to paying for rides–is going to have a profound effect on the types of vehicles we use and the shape of our towns, cities, and lives in the future.

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Just like the transition from horse and carriages to early cars, the same basic platform endures as cars begin their transition to driverless cars: a carriage on four wheels. There are reasons for this. When shifting paradigms, it helps users to have a familiar format that evolves slowly, especially in the early stages when there are real concerns around safety, ethics, and costs. From an industry perspective, there is also the challenge of designing a next generation car on existing platforms. For example, it’s hard to change things too much when the current platform restricts the position of the seat rails for the next five to seven years–roughly how long it takes to develop a new platform.

All this leads to the majority of the current crop of driverless car concepts offering not much more than removing the steering wheel and turning the seats around. As a designer, I’ve been considering what the driverless car platform of the future will look like by venturing beyond today’s constraints and identifying three major opportunities for the future of driverless cars.

Opportunity No. 1: Design from the inside-out

Within cities, the shift from owning a car to paying at the point of use is going to lead to mobility platforms that can reconfigure to the individual needs of each journey and offer unique customer experiences. People will be less concerned with owning a car and associating themselves with a particular car brand, and more interested in buying a service and experience. The best of the existing carmakers will pivot to think of themselves as service providers and compete with some expected (Google, Apple, Uber) and unexpected (Starbucks, FedEx, Amazon–which could tie passenger services with the delivery of products) competitors.

Designed from the inside-out, these platforms will be reconfigurable to offer different types of service at different times of the day, week, or year, like passenger vehicles in rush hour and on busy weekends and a delivery vehicle at night. Consumer decisions about what car to use will be based on the one that has the most comfortable bed if we’re traveling on a long journey, the best coffee, or the fastest Wi-Fi if we’re hosting a business meeting on the go. Greater flexibility means more use overall, so these platforms will need to be built with longevity in mind and have interchangeable modules for different functions that can be swapped, serviced, updated, and repaired, as and when needed.

Opportunity No. 2. Design for luxury

While the flexible, utilitarian model will be a significant development, we mustn’t forget the emotion of driving and the experience of traveling that many people will continue to love. With driverless vehicles there is the opportunity to elevate this experience even more. In some cases inside the city, but more often outside it, personal experiential journeys are going to take place where the journey is the destination, the view out of the window is more important than the road ahead, and where levels of comfort and flexibility match those currently only offered in first-class airline experiences.

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Rolls Royce’s driverless land-yacht concept from last year was an early step in this direction, offering a seamless driving experience in a luxurious interior, and I expect other high-end car brands to follow suit to keep up with increasing competition from service-led brands outside the automotive industry. At the same time, the act of driving could become a pastime, like horse riding is today. Something that used to be a common mode of transport becomes a hobby, not a method of getting from A to B.

Opportunity No. 3: Redesign cities, redesign the skies.

If you look around the city, so much of the existing infrastructure is geared around the car. With total autonomous vehicles and car-to-car connectivity, the existing street furniture of today, from street signs to traffic lights to road barriers, will vanish. It happened before. Just look at photographs of New York at the turn of the last century where the streets are littered with hundreds of telegraph poles and tangles of electric cabling, which disappeared as technology moved on.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a shift away from a car-ownership model to a rental one could mean a 90% reduction in the number of vehicles on the road because each vehicle is being used more, instead of individual vehicles for individual, specific needs. If we no longer need to design cities around conventional cars, there is an opportunity to make them greener, more spacious, and healthier and more enjoyable to inhabit. It means houses without a need for garages or driveways. It means an abundance of brownfield roadways and car parks for which we can explore new uses. In short, the city layout of the future can be rethought around people: a system of different modes of transport, all connected with each other to create a fluid transport environment with less roads and more green space.

This will pave the way for our move to the skies, when the footprint our mobility has on the city will be even further reduced. Our existing transport networks are incredibly dense on the ground. And the skies are limited to a small number of planes for long distance journeys because of cost and current ability to operate them in close proximity to each other (planes currently need to stay 5 nautical miles apart). We imagine more affordable, appropriate, efficient, and democratic use of the skies that will free space for more innovation in the development of cities. (Think about different scales, types, and uses of what we call drones today, from hand-held devices right up to airships.) It’s about understanding where is the most appropriate place for the different mobility options of tomorrow–about building a transportation network, not following the individualist dream that car advertisements have been promising for the past century.