Driver-less Car Design: Sleepwalking into the Future?

There is something hugely appealing about the driver-less car. Even the most gear-headed among us has sat in a traffic jam and thought ‘surely I could be doing something better with my time’.

At CES this week, Mercedes-Benz unveiled their F 015 Luxury in Motion driverless car concept to showcase some ideas around this. It’s a hugely significant juncture for both automotive design and advanced mobility, dripping with some undoubtedly very alluring tech.

The best design has always been a reflection of its time and society. So if we look at what the F 015 Luxury in Motion, and last year’s Rinspeed XchangeE (another driverless car concept — shown below) they suggest a future world where people want to shut themselves off from the outside and instead have a digital experience.

Rinspeed XchangE concept (2014)

Yes, they perhaps sit with friends but ultimately spend more time fiddling with their phones and tablets than paying any attention to real people or the outside world. As I sit in my city center office writing this and look out at the people walking below, heads down, earphones in and attention completely focused on the small screen in their hand, you’d have to say the designers of the F015 and XchangeE have nailed it.

The F 015 is without doubt significant — it’s the first time an automotive OEM has created a dedicated, autonomous driving car concept. Yet in making this move, Mercedes-Benz has thrown up more questions than answers. That autonomous cars are going to happen is a given. That they’ll make roads safer is a sure bet too. So the questions (beyond people’s psychological issues with not driving) that arise sit around the kind of environment people want to be in, their relationship with others in the car, with the outside environment the car is travelling through and then the digital realm beyond that.

The way things stand though, we’re sleep-walking into a scenario where autonomous cars become massive digital devices — (yet another) medium through which to experience digital stuff, while being totally disconnected from the physical world around us. But is anyone stopping to ask whether that’s a desirable scenario?

In reality the envisioned scenarios sees the car risk becoming a ‘transition space’ — like a queue in a shop — where we end up bored and then distract ourselves by watching yet another YouTube cat video.

A cynical view? Maybe — and it’s hard not to pursue this line of thought without sounding anti-progressive. So let’s be clear — driverless cars have an undoubtedly huge role to play in the future. Their ability to liberate us — create less deadtime, reduce death and injury and extend private mobility to the frail, infirm or those physically unable to drive current cars — is potentially fantastic.


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