The future of car design is unwritten, but we have a pretty good idea what it’s going to look like: Doing something as passé as driving, for many of us, will be out, as our robot cars will bounce us from location to location while we put our feet up or squeeze in yet more work hours.
That sounds a bit like the sort of predictions they made in the 1920s, but tech-watchers assure us that the driverless car revolution is coming within the next decade. (There are still questions, of course, about whether the average consumer will be able to afford one, and the answer there isn’t as promising in the short term).
Nonetheless, the fact that car design will eventually be based on factors that don’t necessarily include concepts like “front seat” or “driver’s side” is a major shift in the way that the industry comes up with new creative ideas. And that’s something that the L.A. Auto Show wanted to explore with this year’s entries in its annual design challenge. The prompt for the challenge was “Sensing the Future: How Will Cars Interact With Us In 2029?” and the ideas–from design teams from manufacturers including Infiniti, Honda, Peterbilt, and Chinese-Israeli company Qoros–represent a few fascinating directions.
The challenge in previous years has focused on different types of cars–lightweight cars, racing cars, recreation cars–but this year, design challenge founder Chuck Pelly says, was the first year organizers looked inside the car, at the way we’ll operate them. Not just “how are cars going to look,” but “what are they going to be able to do?”
“This year was the growing challenge of interface, all the electronics,” Pelly says. “It’s very difficult–human/machine interface. This is the first year that we agreed to talk about what the inside of cars is going to look like in the future.”
A glimpse at the ideas presented by the participating teams suggests how varied the inside of cars might be. Honda’s entry focuses on the possibilities of self-driving cars by removing seats all together. “There’s just kind of an undulated carpet–that’s pretty radical,” Pelly explains. “You’ll notice things like that because the cars are automated and totally safe. There are no seat belts. You can just sit in there like a playhouse. It’s very radical thinking.”
Infiniti, meanwhile, opted to forego the self-driving cars in favor of improving the user-driven car to levels that would make Tony Stark jealous. Interior Design Manager of Infiniti Design San Diego John Sahs saw making plans for self-driving cars as a very 2014 task for his team to be working on, and wanted to look further afield. “We felt that what our competitors would be doing is what we actually do now,” he says. “We’re projecting fifteen years later, so we wanted to go even beyond what we have now, and propose a visionary scenario of what it can become.”
The Infiniti machine–called the “SYNAPTIQ”–is a pretty sci-fi concept. Drivers would wear a biometric suit that connects to the car’s interior (called a “pod”), and allows them to drive the car with their brainwaves.
“The suit is this wearable technology that connects the driver to the vehicle through brainwave sensory, where the vehicle function can respond to the driver’s thought-wave,” Sahs explains. “There’s biometric assistance for perfect physical conditioning. Also, there’s bio-synthetic muscles for enhancing optimal performance. So the suit is connected via the spinal lock attachment on back, and it’s hooked up to a universal pod, or Uni-Pod.”
That’s pretty far out-there stuff, but Sahs says that it makes sense for a brand like Infiniti to look at ways to merge the man and the machine, rather than just create a comfy space for you to read while your happy robot car takes you to work. “We wanted a system where you are equal with the machine,” he says. “The machine doesn’t take over for you and tell you what to do. You basically feel in control of the car. We wanted to make this symbiotic relationship–that was really important to us, as we were developing the system. The other competitors are very interesting, but not really pushing the idea of the relationship between man and machine. We wanted to do something visionary, that can inspire new ways of how we interact with our machines, so we wanted not just a passive role, but a very cohesive, active role in our system.”
We probably won’t be wearing brain-scanning robot suits that allow us to drive our cars with our thoughts in 2029, Sahs reluctantly acknowledges (when asked, he does point to the fact that a team recently landed a satellite on a comet to point out that who the heck knows what the future holds). But the fact that the teams responsible for these entries aren’t just students or science-fiction dreamers, but the actual design teams from the companies who will shape our future, is significant.
“The studios represented here, globally, represent the leading edge of the car companies,” Pelly says. “These are sequestered groups of the most creative people they can get to think in the future. So that’s the purpose of these studios: They’re true creative centers, and the sad thing is they’re totally secret. This is one of the very, very few places that people can see what cooks inside these studios.”
Secrecy is important because Infiniti doesn’t want Honda to run off with its ideas (or vice versa), but things do get a little looser in the design challenge. Pelly doesn’t think that has an effect on the likelihood that some of the less “wear a brain-scanning robot suit” ideas might actually come to pass by 2029, though.
“I’d have to say that there’s over a 50% chance that these ideas can come to pass,” Pelly states. “The speed of electronic interface in the automobile is following that of iPads and iPhones and the whole communication world–it’s faster than hell. Really, when you have this much knowledge in a car, it really does affect how you live with a car, how you buy a car, do you just rent it? And so on–it has a real domino effect.”
Whether or not the timeline turns out to be “self-driving cars by 2024” or “your car basically turns you into Iron Man in 2029” or even a disappointing “they still run on gas and have a wheel?” over the next fifteen years remains to be seen. But opening up the top of the industry to what Pelly calls “applied dreaming” is part of what helps shape the future we’ll live in.
“In our day jobs, we’re still creative as much as possible–we just deal with a a lot of current, say, realisti parameters,” Sahs explains. “But by allowing us to dream a bit more, and be more visionary than just focusing on design and discipline, and aesthetic styling, we became futuristic visionaries when we were doing the project. We created a lot of scenarios of how people would be living in the future, how the machines would develop, and how we would react with our cars in the future.”