Shaking Hands With Your Car – A Look into Behavioral Design for Vehicles

Not many of us shake hands with the people we share our living space with.  Morning greetings may happen, but fundamentally when people are both already in the same space, and very familiar with seeing one another on and off much of the time, their greetings are less pronounced.  It’s often the same with work colleagues too; a handshake greeting with everyone every day would be labored (although I’m always charmed by the way many of the French still do just this — current Covid circumstances not-with-standing).

The handshake — or bow or kiss or hug — greeting is fundamentally one between two parties coming together who have been separate for a while, or who are set to be separated.  It serves to demarcate the transition from separate to shared experience and then separate again, whilst asserting and reassuring the status of professional or private relationships within this, and, along with small talk, is part of the acclimatization for the two parties being together too. 

All this makes sense, for people.  But why is a handshake with a car becoming a thing? What possible reason would people want to ‘shake hands’ with a car for? And how would this even be possible?  In this article we’ll examine how new designs like the Lucid Air, Mercedes S-Class and Nissan Ariya are shaking hands with us.

For the majority of people who own a car, the ubiquity of using it makes the transition into their car perfunctory and short: the car is already there and well known to them — there is little need for some transitionary handshake (and, it is only a car, not a person…). 

Volvo remote unlocking and HMI connectivity via user’s phone

While it is normally frequent and familiar, the change in experience for the user transitioning to and from a car is marked, unprecedented even: from standing outside in a big space to sitting in a confined and wholly different spacial environment; from being in a dormant product to one powered up with lights and sounds and with functions proffered; from being parked-up stationary to activity driving on roads; from a quiet space the same temperature as outside to a changed in-car climate and audio experience.

The changes in immediate spacial environmental and engagement activities that a user experiences when they transition to and from a car, are more significant than that of any other day-to-day experience transition. But then this has been so for as long as people have driven cars. What is interesting is how today our transition to the car is becoming an ambiguous point of friction, and an opportunity to add value. It is here that the handshake can play an important role, and is already starting to.

Today most people unlock their car remotely. Many with keyless-entry do so with no action on their part. And the phone car-key is being adopted super-fast in 2020, which will make keyless-entry soon the norm. This means that as well as the point of access of a car being stretched over a longer and less exact time and place before the driver reaches their car, the transition of experience from not being in the car to being in the car now has in place a medium for a prologue and epilogue — a technical means to extend this ‘handshake’ beyond the tightly bound threshold of physically getting in and out of the car.

Given that most new cars have systems that integrate in-car functions with phone apps, people are often also arriving at their cars with a trip’s destination already keyed into their car’s navigation, after maybe also pre-heating the cabin, and with an audio program running on their device that will also transfer to the car.  They may likely later take a call with them from car to device as they end their journey. They may then remotely set some priority on charging the car. And may even assign temporary access to its trunk for a retail delivery.

As well as no longer having the hard boundary of putting a physical key in a lock, the transition to and from car literally stretches over time and place to be a multi-faceted, and, critically, more ambiguous event in terms of the user reliably knowing what is happening when and where and in what way. For this reason, there is a need for the car to have some form of handshake to remotely acknowledge the user and confirm elements of its status, as there is opportunity for it also to engage in building on this more fulsome relationship with the driver. 

The new Lucid Air, Nissan Ariya, Mercedes S-Class and Human Horizons HiPhi X – from the US, Japan, Germany, and China, respectively – have a coordinated array of UX design elements that together make these cars ‘shake hands’ with their users at the beginning and end of their time together.

Human Horizons HiPhi X unlocks and opens the door using proximity sensors

They all have exterior lights that acknowledge the approaching presence of the user and by implication confirm them as exclusively assigned to the car (which, were the car shared, would be particularly useful) and that they are also unlocking to be accessible to them.  This is already quite a common feature on cars, but these designs all use a progressive animated lighting sequence (to varying degrees) to make a distinct light-based handshake.

The Air and S-Class then also present their previously flush door handles (almost literally offering a hand!), and the HiPhi X even opens its doors.  Once inside, all of these designs have some form of progressive illumination, accompanying ‘powering-up’ sounds, and some sequential awakening of UI along with specific confirmation of the individual user (eye-tracking cameras do biometric authentication in the S-Class and HiPhi X), which then brings in the user’s personal preferences — seats, mirrors, entertainment, etc.  

Other brands will follow these leading exemplars of the car-handshake, and soon we will metaphorically have the two-handed handshake for an even closer embrace of the car customer. There is plenty of scope for the car-handshake to progress: for the individual elements to develop in their sophistication; new ones to join; for them to be more holistically integrated with each other; for the handshake to be realized in a way that is brand distinct.

Car-handshake design has the potential to reduce this friction-point in modern car’s user experience, and make a more empathetic transition into and out of the car in a way that fosters a closer and stronger relationship between user and car and car brand. [This is an area Car Design Research develops road-maps, researches from parallel areas, and creates formative concepts for]. 

So, shaking hands with a car is increasingly a thing. It serves much the same function as it does between two people in demarcating, reassuring, and acclimatizing the transition from being separate to being together — and reducing the ambiguity of identifying car, securing car, knowing it is it set-up for the driver, being ready to go, etc.

It can be done mostly with choreographed animated lighting and UI design, ideally also with sound and moving physical elements that add much to the handshake. It is of increasing value as this transition occurs over a larger chunk of time and space, and as today’s cars foster more complex relationships with their users.

Even if in formative form so far, the car-handshake stands as part of a new dawn of Behavioral Design in automotive where the nature of the animated entity that is a modern car is consciously designed to behave in a specific manner to engender a stronger and more emotive bond with the customer. 

Maybe we don’t all want to shake hands with our cars, just as we sometimes don’t want to shake hands with some people. But it can be done, it increasingly serves a purpose and, done properly, this will create deeper customer relationships. Shaking hands with your car is becoming a thing, and we can’t see it ever not being a thing. 


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.