Your Private Tech Pod on Wheels: A Glimpse Inside the Future of Autonomous Vehicles

Someday, your grandchildren may giggle when you tell them you used to sit in a driver’s seat and steer your own car through town. The tipping point — when driving ourselves will seem like an antiquated idea — is just around the corner. California has a long and growing list of companies with permits to test autonomous cars, from Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, to Google, and now Apple. Intel is investing deeply in autonomous car tech, and Audi is the first company to test self-driving cars in New York. Lyft predicts that a majority of its rides will be in self-driving cars by 2021.

If the technology for a car to drive itself is well on its way, what about the tech will shape the experience for riders? How will we communicate with our cars and know we’re safe inside them? What will our cars know about us, and how will we spend our time once we’re not required to keep our eyes on the road? Experts in user experience (UX) and autonomous vehicle design are working right now to answer those questions about our future on the road.

Why UX means everything for autonomous car adoption.

A lot of people will tell you they’re not sure they’re ready to count on a car to do their driving — the trust gap is pretty big. But UX designers tell us it’s the interface between the car and its riders that will make people comfortable enough to surrender their driving duties to computers. We’ll need continuous feedback about what the car sees, and what it has planned, in order to put our minds at ease.

David Pasztor, founder of UX Studio, has a perfect analogy. “If you travel with someone who’s driving, and there’s a danger on the road, the first thing you do is look at the face of the driver. And when you see that the driver sees the obstacle, you feel safe, because you assume that he or she will do something about it. And we need this kind of feedback in autonomous cars, too. So if I look at that interface, I can be sure that the car is aware of everything around itself, and everything will go well.”

When the car drives itself, we need some way of knowing that the car recognizes the obstacles we see, so we feel safe. Source: UX Studio.

But you, the rider, won’t be the only one your car is communicating with. Pascal Soboll, who leads Daylight Design Europe, explains, “Car makers have started to think well beyond the interaction between car and driver. Current concept cars increasingly extend the interaction from the inside of the vehicle to its outside, exploring display surfaces on the car’s exterior, and projections onto the ground around the car.”

These new interactions extend the reach of the car’s digital interfaces to everyone around the vehicle. “After all, there are many communication aspects to consider between the vehicle and its surroundings,” says Pascal. “How will I know whether an autonomous car I ordered to my hotel is really for me? How will a car let a pedestrian know that it is safe to cross in front of it? What will a thank-you wave look like? How will people around the car even be able to tell whether the vehicle is in autonomous mode, or whether the driver is in charge? As a pedestrian, if you see the person inside nodding off, you will want to know if the car is driving.”

Goodbye “10 and 2,” hello new interfaces.

When it comes to driving, there’s nothing more quintessential than the feel of the steering wheel, the careful placement of your hands at “10 and 2,” or the casual way you might sling your hand over the top of the wheel. But, according to Pascal, even the iconic steering wheel will become a thing of the past — gone like so many other tools we once thought we could never live without.

“Eventually we will give up steering wheels, and they will be replaced by the corresponding interfaces. After all, we have always given up reassuring features of old technologies as soon as the replacement technologies were mature enough to warrant our trust. We generally don’t miss the fact that a typewriter put ink on paper right away — we trust our PCs to keep our thoughts safe until, eventually, we might print them out.”

But even as he sees the steering wheel heading for its final curtain call, Pascal hopes to use his for as long as he can. “Some car geeks — like me — will want to keep steering wheels for as long as it is still legal to drive manually. At some point, though, driving manually is likely to be seen as smoking is today — unhealthy, unsafe for others, and banned in public places. After that point, weekends at the track will be the last refuge of good old manual driving.”

If the steering wheel, along with the gas, brake, and gear shifter, are our current modes for communicating with our cars, what will the new interfaces look like? David suspects we’ll have a lot of choices.

“There are some folks who say there will be just a phone, or it will be just voice or a touchscreen. But I think cars are a very good example of how mixed interfaces work the best,” says Pascal. “We will probably have some kind of application on our phones to order a car, to see where it is, and to have this Uber-like experience of jumping in a car. But then when I’m in the car, maybe I will give instructions with my voice. But I think that voice control is not enough. We will need UIs with displayed information and that will probably be a touchscreen.”

What’ll we do in the car?

According to Pascal, the trust-building role of UX is an important, but intermediate, phase as the technology gains acceptance. Eventually an autonomous car’s interface will cater to our other interests.

“They will focus more on higher-level trip info, similar to what we get on planes today, but more interactive,” Pascal believes. “After all, you don’t typically divert your train because you remembered that you need to pick up your dry cleaning, or land a 767 to spontaneously pick up some flowers on the way. Beyond that, the majority of the interface real estate will be dedicated to work, relaxation, and play — just like in consumer electronics.”

Once you no longer need information about driving the car, the interface can offer options for work, relaxation, and play. Source: UX Studio.

David’s team is also considering what passengers will do with their time once they don’t need to watch the road anymore. “When the car is autonomous, you can do anything you want,” David says. “We explored a few options. You can, of course, work if you want, but you can watch a movie or even sleep in the car. If you want to travel far distances, you can have a bed in the car and travel during the night. And people can use the cars as meeting rooms. So when we design autonomous cars, we have to keep these uses in mind and put features in the cars that support them.”

While Pascal agrees that people will pursue work and leisure, he doesn’t think autonomous cars will inspire people to do things they don’t already do, even though that’s what some of the futurists predict. “I personally think that if you are not taking online courses to study Spanish or Chinese already, an autonomous car won’t make the difference,” Pascal says.

Designing the rider experience.

As AI technology develops, cars could have the ability to learn and sense things about us. “I can imagine cars that will get used to the habits of the riders,” says David. “For example, the car can recommend different content. Or, when you sit in a car, it can use different settings for different people. This can be done through motion learning and artificial intelligence so the car will know your preferences and use them to make your ride more comfortable.”

Loni Stark, senior director of strategy and product marketing at Adobe, thinks autonomous cars will become something like a “moving wearable” that can provide experiences based on your location and preferences. Early on, we’ll do the kinds of things we already do in our living rooms, Loni says. But as the tech develops, there will be more ways to extend our physical experiences with digital ones, which will open opportunities for brands to reach customers in meaningful, useful ways.

“Imagine you are heading to Disneyland, or a show. You can envision how these brands could extend the experience with a pre-destination or pre-show package that you’ll experience in your car,” explains Loni. “You could learn about the history of the place, or the backgrounds of the performers, or even take a guided tour. That way, when you get there, you’re not bogged down with all of the things you could have done ahead of time. You can truly enjoy the physical aspects of the place.”

These informational experiences don’t have to be tied to your destination. Brands will have the opportunity to offer all kinds of useful content for the ride. Imagine learning investing tips from your financial services company, or, as Loni jokes, “If you’re trying to teach your teenagers about budgeting, and you have them locked in the car already, it’s a great time for a tutorial.”

Adobe is already starting to apply its customer experience tools to in-car experiences, helping auto manufacturers and apps integrate analytics and personalization right into the car’s ecosystem. This will be a fundamental step toward personalized in-car media, whether it’s context-relevant info on your car’s screen, or personalized voice interactions. As all of the tech matures, Loni predicts that riding will transition from a purpose-driven activity to an experience-driven, highly personalized one. “Just imagine — with a mobile device, you only personalize a screen. But in a car, you can move beyond that to personalize the entire environment.”

A car we’ll hardly recognize, and probably won’t call our own.

If you’re envisioning sitting in your current car — but without a steering wheel — while it drives you places, and connects you with digital content, you haven’t peeked far enough into the future. There are more fundamental ways that self-driving technology will change car design — from the interior configuration, to the size and shape of a vehicle.

“Some changes will come relatively soon, others will come later,” says Pascal. “[In the] short-term, there will be a lot more freedom in the packaging of a car, due to the introduction of battery electric drivetrains. The classic car shape we know today is due, to a large extent, to having to fit a large combustion engine (mostly in front), and a tank (mostly in the rear). Batteries come in small units that can be shaped in much more interesting ways, and electric engines are only a fraction of the size of a combustion engine. Therefore, the classic two- or three-box design will be a thing of the past. It might occasionally be used as a retro-styling cue, but it won’t be based on necessity.”

Over the longer term, Pascal imagines that cars will also shrink in size and weight because they won’t require safety features like crumple zones anymore. And safety-based seating arrangements, in which we all face forward with our belts on, will morph into configurations that are more comfortable and social.

But it’s not just the size and shape of cars that will change — our relationships to them will also evolve. The current ownership model is already shifting with ride-sharing models like Uber and Lyft, and car-sharing from companies like Zipcar. As vehicles become autonomous, we’ll probably be even less inclined to accept the inefficiency of owning our own cars.

As Pascal explains, “While today, cars run on fossil fuels, are owned by individuals, and remain stationary 96 percent of the time, in the future we will hail an electric vehicle on an as-needed basis from a fleet of autonomous vehicles. The fleet will have learned to spread out so that it never takes more than three minutes to reach any customer. Occupancy rates of seats will skyrocket from maybe 2 percent today to perhaps 50 percent. Accordingly, a given number of people will only need a fraction of the number of vehicles that are around today.”

Immersed in UX, with more space for the real world, too.

If these futuristic takes are right, riding in a car is poised to be unrecognizable in the not-too-distant future. We’ll be transported in something like a personalized tech pod that has the ability to know, inform, and entertain us in new ways. In this formulation, we’re more connected to technology than ever, but also liberated from a single screen or interface. And we may even find there’s more space to enjoy the real world around us. Pascal sums up the possibilities:

“Already, my half-hour on the train each morning and each evening is some of the most focused work time I have all day. And on long-haul flights I thoroughly enjoy catching up on movies, and having time to think away from my desk — often with an inspiring view. On a personal level, I am looking forward to more quality time while traveling, and also to more livable cities with less space taken up by cars, and more space for people.

Read more about the future of immersive experiences in our Beyond the Screen collection.