The age of self-driving autonomous cars is nearly upon us. As a car guy, this of course terrifies me. But as a designer, the challenges and opportunities this new frontier opens up are exciting. Like most technological advances, I think the first generation or two won’t look much different than what they replace. It will be a feature you can turn on in your car. Tired to idling in LA or NY traffic? Flip on the self-driving mode and let the car get you home while you do more important things, like watch YouTube videos.
Maybe steering wheels will start to get smaller as they are used less and become a psychological affordance, a mental “just in case”. Maybe seats will have less performance influence. Your bucket seats will start to morph back into the bench seats of old. Speed and fuel gauges might give way to movie screens.
A few generations in though and things might really start to change. Of course these self-driving cars will be able to easily share themselves; letting you rent out your car by the hour or the mile. And Uber will eliminate the need to own one all together.
But what happens when the car evolves from a means of transport to a place itself? Commuting to work? Why not take a Starbucks owned and operated car where you can get a latte and lounge at a table working on your laptop on the way. A long drive to see the in-laws? Maybe call for a movie car where you can watch a Michael Bay blockbuster in full surround sound on that two-hour ride. Need to run some errands and grab lunch? Sounds like a burrito car. Need to work off the day’s stress on the way home? Pick from a workout car or a zen meditation car.
Once upon a time Starbucks called itself the “third place”. Not home, not work, that other place you wanted to go in-between. The self-driving car could very well evolve into that third place, but a place on the go. Making the in-between something that can also get you there. I imagine an entire crop of small businesses existing solely on cars. The payment in exchange for the goods and services these businesses provide would pay for the car journey itself.
Ultimately, I think there is room for the coexistence of the entire experience spectrum, from fully automated transport, to completely manual analog cars designed just for enjoyment. Personally, I want the best of both worlds, a self-driving experience to get me to and from work, and a vintage sports car to putz around in on the weekend and have a blast on the backroads. Hopefully the traditional automotive driving experience won’t be relegated to purely immersive VR experiences. Every trend has its counter trend.