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What will autonomous cars look like?

The Audi RSQ Robot movie car.
The Audi RSQ Robot movie car. - Contributed

Cars are perfect machines for carting humans around. And they should be. Their design and operation has been refined over more than 100 years by dozens of companies all building basically the same four-wheeled machines, all hell-bent on outdoing one another. No other complex consumer product is so refined.

Take, for example, the steering wheel. It is a brilliant invention; a wonderfully intuitive way for humans to control the complex series of hydraulic, electric, and mechanical linkages that move the front wheels and turn a car.

The volume knob too, its location was agreed-upon by a kind of slow, evolutionary process Darwin would have recognized. You know where it is, and can use it without taking your eyes off the road.

The car, however, is about to undergo a complete re-design and everything — even the steering wheel — is on the table.

“I don’t think there’s been this much change in such a fast period since we switched over to the assembly line, but you could even say since the switch from horses to horseless carriages.” says Paul Snyder, chair of the transportation design department at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit. “It’s a rapidly changing field and that makes it extraordinarily exciting,”

There is not one, but three simultaneous new inventions re-shaping the automobile: self-driving technology, electric powertrains, and car-sharing mobility services. Combined, they amount to a revolution.

Evolutionary leap

The Mercedes Urbanetic imagines a rolling lounge that would pick you up. - Contributed
The Mercedes Urbanetic imagines a rolling lounge that would pick you up. - Contributed

“There has been a long, slow evolution and perfection of the craft of car design over the years,” says Laura Robin, director of BMW’s Designworks studio in Los Angeles. “What we’re looking at now is a 90-degree re-framing.”

Car designers aren’t quite starting from a blank-sheet — most concepts still have four wheels — but everything else is up for re-invention. What will these sharable, electric, autonomous cars of the future look like? At the moment, everyone from tech-giants to start-ups to major automakers are throwing a bit of everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Google wants to get rid of the simple, perfect steering wheel altogether. In fact, its first prototype self-driving vehicle did away with all human controls, including pedals.

“It was clearly not done by an automotive designer,” says Snyder. “It looked like somebody took an Apple magic mouse and put wheels on it. It would make a really good tape dispenser or something like that.”

Google’s car raises the question of whether design matters at all for shared, self-driving vehicles. Isn’t one pod on wheels just as good as the next if it gets you where you’re going? You don’t care which subway car you get into.

“Likely you will not see those jellybean-shaped cars coming from BMW,” says Robin. “There will be those offerings from companies that are more about pods moving through cities.”

Most established auto makers are so far leaning towards keeping the steering wheel and pedals, at least in some form. In the near-term, cars will need controls so a human can drive those last few, difficult, kilometres from the highway off-ramp to your driveway or office.

On its F 015 concept, Mercedes imagined a retractable steering wheel and swiveling seats. There are screens everywhere, even around the lower half of the doors. Another Mercedes concept — the 2019 Vision Urbanetic — is even more extreme; it’s a driverless lounge that will pick you up on demand.

BMW’s Vision Next100 concept has retractable controls that disappear completely into the dash when you want to kick back and let the car handle the traffic.

Inverting the design process

The BMW Vision Next100. - Contributed
The BMW Vision Next100. - Contributed

Where the interiors of these cars are radical, the exteriors of the F 015 and Vision Next100 are actually rather conventional in terms of the overall silhouette.

“We’ve had a history of being exquisite sculptors, and now we’re asking designers to start with a wider lens, to start with a notion of interaction experiences,” says Robin. In the past, when designing a new BMW, they’d start with geometry: what are the proportions, what kind of car is it, how does it sit on its wheels? That would define the exterior, and the interior would follow.

“Within certain segments, vehicles do look a lot alike,” says Snyder. “Everybody is working to the same very rigid crash protection and pedestrian safety requirements.”

In the future, Robin imagines cars being designed not just from the inside out, but from the experience out. “The questions are really inverted,” she says. What will you want to do inside the car? How will you interact with the car if you’re not driving it? What is the experience of ordering this sharable-car to your door? How seamlessly does it know your preferences?

In the far future, as autonomous vehicles make driving much safer, crash regulations could one day be relaxed, giving designers the kind of freedom they enjoyed in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

“If you draw on your influence from action hero helmets or Storm Trooper helmets, EVA space-suits, you can do some really cool-looking things,”

Paul Snyder, chair of transportation design, College of Creative Studies

Snyder thinks there are more radical designs yet to come. “Beyond the Google car, most of the concepts have been very automotive. I don’t think the architecture has been exploited.” 

For example? “If you look at an electric drivetrain, you have the flexibility to move the cabin both back and forward,” he says. Gasoline motors are much bulker than their electric counterparts. “Imagine someone facing rearward in the front seats. Now what will that do to a silhouette? You’re going to have a box or bus-like silhouette. Might be very good for interior spaciousness. A lot of people might be better served in a kind of living room or office on wheels.”

That bus-like shape is something auto designers usually work hard to avoid. In China, with a group of design students, Snyder put the problem to them: “There must be ways of making that exciting and attractive.” The students drew from contemporary culture, way outside the automotive realm. “If you draw on your influence from action hero helmets or Storm Trooper helmets, EVA space-suits, you can do some really cool-looking things,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount to be explored with OLED graphics, both projected inward on glass surfaces and outward.”

He’s a big fan of the autonomous Audi concept car from iRobot, the one Will Smith used to evade an army of killer robots. “It was beyond awesome. Up there with the Lamborghini Countach in my mind.”

But what of sports cars like the Countach, cars for people who still want drive. Do they even have a future? Both Robin and Snyder think they do.

“We believe people are going to want to engage with cars emotionally still and not only see them as these tools to get you from A to B,” says Robin. “My personal opinion is that there’s still going to be this need to have the wind whistling through your hair as you get out on the weekend.”

“I was talking to my friend who’s the chief designer at Pininfarina; what could Ferrari possibly do with autonomy?” Snyder said. What if a Ferrari could teach its driver to lap a track as fast as Sebastian Vettel, they wondered? Now, that’s a future worth waiting for.

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