Attentive readers of 1950s magazines may have noticed an ad by America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies depicting an electric, self-driving convertible cruising along an open road. “No traffic jams…no collisions…no driver fatigue,” the caption reads. It could practically be a contemporary ad for Waymo or Tesla, with one big exception—the family inside is playing dominos together instead of staring blankly at their respective phones.
Visions of autonomous vehicles are nothing new, of course, but how we might choose to spend the ultimate cognitive surplus—the hour the average American spends driving daily—on new pursuits depends on what we value. Assuming Level 5 autonomy is ever achieved (at which point humans will be blissfully unengaged passengers), the most popular pastimes will surely include working, sleeping, and watching TV.
To those ends, IDEO has proposed autonomous conference rooms, Volvo unveiled a self-driving bedroom, and Pixar’s WALL-E is a dystopian touchstone for a world of ubiquitous screens. But as always, the future is likely to be weirder than you think. Here are nine of the best guesses by the futurists and designers imagining new experiences for autonomous vehicles.
1. You’ll no longer rely on a dashboard.
First things first: a self-driving car will look and feel nothing like a car. The pedals, steering, and dashboard will inevitably disappear, replaced by—what? In surveys, drivers say they would prefer to use touchscreens or voice commands to communicate with vehicles, but that’s only the beginning. Artificial intelligence and eye tracking will combine to read your moods if not quite your mind. Meanwhile, the dashboard itself will disappear, replaced by “virtual haptics” systems, such as BMW’s HoloActive Touch concept, in which passengers manipulate holographic controls. “Instead of just swiping the air, imagine you could start to push against something in the air—a virtual dial that you turn just by the shape of your hand,” says Christian Schluender, vice president and general manager of global design at Huemen, the internal design agency of Harman, which counts BMW, Volvo, and Audi among its clients.
2. You’ll share a ride but not your privacy.
We’re facing a “heaven” or “hell” of autonomous vehicles, argues Zipcar founder Robin Chase. The former is one of shared rides, quick trips, and cheap fares; the latter is a permanent traffic jam crossed with WALL-E. How can we have the best of both worlds—shared and social, but still private? “Imagine if the two of us could jump into a six-person vehicle, but our area was sound-proofed, as if we were in a cone of silence,” Schluender says. “We’re already working on technology to isolate sound inside a vehicle for the driver and each passenger. In the future, how we stitch together social experiences will be a big part of the user experience.”
3. You’ll see where you are, not just where you’re going.
What happens when the prime directive of driving—keep your eyes on the road—no longer applies? Who needs screens when the landscape outside is the real entertainment, enhanced by augmented reality? “The taxi experience of the future could be a guided tour of whatever city you’re in,” says Devin Liddell, principal futurist of the design studio Teague, which has worked on autonomous concepts for Toyota. “You could know what’s in that building. Who designed it? What’s the history of the street I’m on?” The ride becomes a history lesson, and cars become mobile classrooms.
4. You’ll take the scenic route. Or the happiest one. Or…
When saving time is your only objective, all that matters is speed—hence, Waze always solving for the fastest routes. But if the journey itself is an experience, why not choose your own adventure? “You can tell the car, ‘I don’t want to go the same old way; take me through Queens!” Schluender says. Computer scientist Daniele Quercia has already combined crowd-sourced, geo-tagged pictures with semantic analysis to create “Happy Maps“—an alternative cartography based on emotions rather than traffic. Never mind where you want to go today; how would you like to feel?
5. Your first dates might be awkward.
As technology changes, so do social norms. Twenty years ago, a person speaking on their phone in public was shocking; a decade later, placing it on the table during meals still was gauche. (How times change.) When it comes to cars, little things like the direction of seats and keeping one’s eyes on the road create subtle cues for conversation. What happens when those are replaced and you can make more eye contact—or more than you might desire? “How does the first date change?” Schluender asks. “In the past, the awkwardness of a first date was mitigated by a focus on driving. How does that experience change when it’s not just about choosing a radio station but being forced to have a conversation?” Will it extend and deepen the quality of first dates—or just make things really awkward?
6. Your school bus may prevent bullying.
A self-driving school bus concept by Teague envisions vehicles for no more than six children, with facing seats to encourage safe passage, interaction, and play. Its designers say that the smaller vehicle can even curtail bullying, after consultations with experts revealed that the majority of bullying occurs on school buses occupied by 40 or more students. While automakers obsess over affluent adults’ needs and whims, “there wasn’t any discussion as to what it would mean for kids, even though half of all American students are onboard a bus on any given school day,” Liddell says. Historically disadvantaged groups such as children, the elderly, and the disabled may well prove to be the biggest beneficiaries of AVs.
7. Your doctor’s visit begins at your front door.
Americans miss an estimated 3.6 million medical appointments each year due to transportation issues, costing the U.S. healthcare system an astonishing $150 billion in lost time and complications. But according to Liddell, with AVs, you can have “a health clinic on wheels,” complete with a caregiver onboard saving time by taking blood pressure and streamlining intake. Just as a self-driving school bus might replace drivers with teachers, Liddell expects an autonomous world will be one in which “the vehicle is an extension of the institution,” whether school or hospital.
8. Your autonomous vehicle may be a scooter.
When inventor Dean Kamen unveiled the Segway nearly two decades ago, Steve Jobs declared it “as big a deal as the PC,” for which he was roundly mocked. Today, however, Segway’s technology powers the scooter companies rewiring urban mobility in real-time—and Uber is reportedly already at work on autonomous bicycles and scooters. Harman’s Schluender imagines flocks of such vehicles gliding down streets in formation, with their riders enjoying the breeze. “Motors are growing stronger, batteries are charging faster, and designers will have more freedom to play with both,” he says.
9. Nothing. You’ll do absolutely nothing.
“The biggest freedom will be choosing to do nothing,” Schluender says. “Literally nothing—just the ability to decompress, take a deep breath, not triage email, not cleaning up, not video-conferencing someone to say hello, but finding a little bit of your own time. I hope we can find a little space in mobility to foster this new attitude—we’re creating time for people.”
This article was created for and commissioned by Harman.