January 1, 2017
Industry experts estimate that truly autonomous vehicles (AVs) will hit the new car market sometime after 2020, making the next evolutionary step in transportation possible. These vehicles will drive themselves, navigate through traffic, communicate with transportation networks, and even decide who to protect in unavoidable collisions.
It is estimated that they will reduce car accident deaths by 90%, optimize vehicle performance and efficiency, allow for glassy futuristic car sharing, lower fuel and car insurance costs, and provide a viable transportation option for the disabled. Because of this, US politicians are lining up to push through legislation, and roll out incentives for car makers who can make this happen.
But what kind of future can we expect to come from this?
In the 2002 film, Minority Report, cities are clean, and efficient, filled with shiny AVs and all kinds of Big Brother tech. It’s a monitored and automated world (based on the book by Philip K. Dick, also known as the guy who wrote Bladerunner). In the film, we can see that cars are no longer personal machines. Cars are for collective use, and are basically the same model, presumably made by the same manufacturer, and nothing more is needed.
This sounds extreme, but it poses a relevant question. If we take the driving out of driving, and we’re all just reading Facebook posts on the way to mall where we have our irises checked and our credit report read, how will our expectations of what a car should be change? If we shift the focus from the driving experience, to passenger experience, what gets lost?
Everything gets lost. I like the idea of AVs in regard to the disabled, or the inebriated, or those who don’t enjoy driving, or those who aren’t that great at it, or traffic jams, but I doubt it’s going to produce the kinds of designs that car enthusiasts enjoy.
It’s not just about the car enthusiasts either, because humans have always been psychologically connected to moving within their environment, at their own direction. A horse rider, a motorcycle rider, a car driver, we connect to what gets us from place to place, to a method or a machine that becomes a part of us, and the way we think.
AV travel is disconnected, the same as a plane or a bus, where you sit in a seat, and your experience is only that seat, or the movies the airline plays, the food, etc… Passengers don’t feel the aircraft, and so their focus is on work, or entertainment, and they accept that they are not in control of their environment.
While this is going to start as an option in cars, I think the temptation for most people will be to use the AV tech all the time, which means less people will improve their real-world driving skills, which would make it less of an option in the long-term future.
In terms of design, you’re basically talking about an entertainment box that no one drives, which means that it’s probably not going to produce a lot of the streamlined race car type prototypes that companies like Faraday Future are showing us. For the mainstream, I’d expect a lot of slow mini-van looking things, offering maximum seat comfort and space for the TV, maybe a foldout bed for slipping into a coma.