On a summery day in the simulated world within my VR headset, I stand on a curb and tap a virtual watch on my virtual wrist to hail a ride. “What we have here is an example of an on-demand vehicle coming toward you,” Hugo Nightingale, a creative specialist with Jaguar Land Rover Design, says as I watch the sleek, black-and-white robo-car perched on oversized tires pull up on the empty street. Its gullwing doors swing open to reveal a small seating area.
Craning my neck to peek farther inside the car, I see a short, narrow cabin devoid of dashboard technology aside from a lightweight rectangular steering wheel. The layout, which bears little resemblance to a modern car, suggests that we’ve stepped into Jaguar’s vision for a fully self-driving car, 23 years in the future. Welcome to the year 2040.
The car is Jaguar Land Rover’s Future-TYPE concept, and it exists only within the virtual realm. The steering wheel, however, lives also outside of the digital domain, as a physical prototype. And like Alexa or Siri, it has a sense of humor and a name: Sayer, in honor of Malcolm Sayer, designer of Jaguar’s iconic 1968 E-Type roadster. Sayer is an artificial intelligence-powered steering wheel–the first of its kind–programmed to serve as a personal assistant and chauffeur.
In fact, Jaguar Land Rover thinks, in the year 2040, the steering wheel might be the only part of the car a consumer owns. Sleek with rounded edges, Sayer is portable, easy to carry, and weighs about two pounds. When you pull into your driveway, it’s designed to leave the car and come inside with you, doubling as a cross between a go-to device like your iPhone and “a beautiful object to have inside your home,” says Nightingale.
At home or in the car, Sayer will connect to all your devices to perform hundreds of virtual assistant-like tasks, from waking you up to ordering milk when it senses a dwindling supply in your refrigerator. Through machine learning and a deep information technology infrastructure, the steering wheel will develop a layer of artificial intelligence to analyze your schedule, preferences, likes, and dislikes, as well as external factors such as weather and traffic conditions and their impact on your behavior. (It might even administer a daily health check, spotting symptoms, contacting a doctor, and dropping you at your medical appointment or local hospital, says Jaguar Land Rover CEO Ralf Speth.)
The more time you spend together, the more Sayer will get to know you and the more “contextually aware” it will become. “It understands what your itinerary is, what your needs of the day are, and also what’s happening in your environment,” Nightingale says. “It brings different information together to allow it to be a hopefully very intelligent steering wheel.”
Most importantly, at least from an automaker’s perspective, Sayer is designed to connect you to on-demand ride services provided by self-driving vehicles like the Future-TYPE concept. The all-electric coupe showcases the company’s vision for how it thinks we might be driving within the next couple decades: as part of a network of fully autonomous vehicles that operate as a shared fleet. That’s why the Future-TYPE features what Jaguar calls a new-age “social-seating interior.” The cabin’s two seats–which are staggered, with one in the front and one in the rear–swivel to face either direction: You can turn your seat based on whether you want to chat with your fellow rider or sit in solitude.
But Sayer won’t necessarily be integral to the in-car experience. Though it can come along for the ride and mount to the dashboard as a functional steering wheel, Jaguar anticipates that Sayer will spend most of its time as a handy piece of sculpture to be left on a coffee table. Instead, the Future-TYPE will show up at your door with its own steering wheel in tow, allowing you a choice: drive, or sit back and relax.
The humble steering wheel, or lack thereof, has become emblematic of the autonomous age. While the debate rages over whether self-driving cars should even need one, Jaguar Land Rover’s decision to make Sayer a cornerstone of its vision contrasts with Elon Musk’s belief that steering wheels have a shelf life. In the future, “there will not be a steering wheel,” Musk said at a meeting of the National Governors Association this summer. “In 20 years, it will be like having a horse.” At last month’s Frankfurt Motor Show, Mercedes-Benz unveiled a driverless, all-electric concept car, called the smart vision EQ fortwo, that forgoes a steering wheel and pedals. The design reimagines the very notion of a car, Britta Seeger, a member of the board of management for Mercedes parent company Daimler AG, said. Pantomiming steering a car, Seeger said, “Even the sign language for ‘car’ is no longer fit to describe such a vehicle.”
Skeuomorphism, the idea that a representation of an object should mimic its real-world counterpart, has fallen in and out of style lately. Apple removed the leather binding designs on the old iOs calendar; later, the Apple Watch embraced the analogue clock face. Using a steering wheel to call for a ride long after its main function is irrelevant could be skeuomorphism at its worst. “From a design perspective, any form that doesn’t serve a purpose is trite and cheapens the product,” said Timothy Huntzinger, a professor in the Graduate Transportation Design Department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “A form that communicates a use that it doesn’t perform is even worse. A steering wheel that doesn’t steer would fall into that category for me.”
But Jaguar Land Rover thinks that people in 2040 might continue to use Sayer as a traditional steering wheel, even if it’s only when they’re in the mood. Though the company thinks its customers will be using autonomous, on-demand rides to opt out of mundane trips to the office or grocery store, it still thinks people might want to take a joyride, and the Future-TYPE is intended to serve as a sort of hybrid: a fully autonomous car that can still function like a regular one that returns control to the driver, on demand, an idea that many automakers plan to embrace, at least in transitional times, as a way of playing to the public’s love of the open road. “If it’s a sunny day and the traffic isn’t bad,” Nightingale says, “it could say, ‘Hey, conditions look good so you might want to do the driving today.'”
Jaclyn Trop is an award-winning journalist and automotive reporter.