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Imagining A Future Where Autonomous Cars Let Everyone Carpool

Ideo tries to design a system that would result in people happily sharing cars instead of driving alone.

Most Americans still drive to work alone, despite the fact that apps can easily find commuters who might want to share a ride. A new project from Ideo envisions how better vehicle design could change that.

In a self-driving car, each rider might sit in a pod-like seat that can be set to “privacy mode,” so people can relax on the way to work. A shelf with the owner’s belongings might automatically retract and lock when the car is shared. When a rider approaches, the car could flash a color to show them which car is theirs and point them to the right door.

“We wanted to put yet another provocation out there to mobility providers writ large–OEMs, new mobility providers–to kind of think about what it might mean to design a little more thoughtfully for this emergent segment of mobility,” says Danny Stillion, partner at Ideo.

The design firm first launched its Future of Automobility site in 2014 to consider how driving and delivery will change in the near future. The new chapter of the site, focused on ridesharing and carsharing, is based on patterns that Ideo has seen as it works with clients considering alternate models for vehicle ownership.

They think that car ownership won’t disappear, even if it becomes possible to almost instantly summon a self-driving taxi whenever you need one. “I think for some folks ownership is still going to make sense at an emotional level,” Stillion says. For those with a longer commute, owning a car might still be more affordable, mile by mile, than other types of transportation. But with different design, owners might be much more willing to let strangers also use their cars.

In the scenario Ideo envisions, someone could choose between using their car privately, letting other people book rides, or letting others book the whole car. Pods around each seat give visual privacy if someone leans back, and noise-cancellation makes the space quiet. If people want to be social, the acoustics could be switched to amplify sound, making it easier to hear other riders. Each seat would have dedicated storage, and it might remind someone if they leave something behind as they’re getting out of the car.

If an electric motor and batteries are housed underneath the car, there would be more space for storage in both the front and back; an owner might use the front, while the back could be used for riders or someone borrowing the entire car through a car-sharing app.

The trunk could also be used to deliver goods. In one example, someone who books the car to run errands in the afternoon–when the owner doesn’t need it–could offset some of that cost by choosing to pick up groceries for the owner. A temperature-controlled bin would store the food.

“I think there’s a lot of breakthroughs in terms of being a little more thoughtful about not only how we’re moving people, but how we’re moving things around in an ecosystem,” says Stillion.

It’s something that car companies are already starting to think about; Volvo, for example, is testing a new service in Sweden that delivers packages to the trunk of your car. Eventually, cars may be designed to work seamlessly with the gig economy, helping both users and owners save money and time.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Co.Exist who focuses on sustainable design. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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