The Driver as a Vestigial Appendage

I was watching a video (below) of Carnegie Mellon University’s Autonomous Cadillac SRX taking a 33-mile drive from Cranberry to Pittsburgh. More than any video of Google’s driverless car, this one had me wondering, “Why would we maintain the current configuration of a car’s interior with forward-facing seats? Is the technological innovation of driverless cars outpacing the design innovation that could make them more productive or functional spaces?”

First, the video in question: the 42-minute drive from Cranberry to Pittsburgh. It is everything that you would expect of a 33-mile drive except for the one small fact that: as the driver, you have absolutely nothing to do:

This video, perhaps more than any other, left me wondering what I, as an obsolete driver, was supposed to do in a driverless vehicle. When I take a cab to the airport, I text friends, check and write e-mail, surf the Web, play games, etc. In the Carnegie Melon video (as in similar videos about the Google Driverless Car), the erstwhile driver sits there. For 42 minutes. Try watching the whole video. Once the novelty wears off, the experience is absolutely mind-numbing. Is that the future that we are destined (or doomed) to?

There is a strong sense that a human needs to be there in the event of a technological failure but I think this video about the Google driverless car is telling. The engineer behind the steering wheel explains (7:08) that:

It’s my job to look out at the road and make sure that it’s behaving well but often you can see more clearly what’s going on right around the car actually on the screen. It’s looking all around the vehicle simultaneously.

So I don’t need to be forward facing in the front left (or right) of the passenger compartment to have better sense of what is going on around me. In the event of a failure, why not simply trigger a basic set of commands (turn on blinker, pull over to the shoulder, apply safety blinkers, signal for a tow / roadside assistance, etc.)?

So, again, why I am in a forward-facing front seat? What if I wanted to talk with my fellow travelers (yes, I know I am whitewashing over years of family vacations that were dominated by arguments over one person encroaching on another person’s half of the car but work with me)? Or if I wanted to read? Or work on my tablet or laptop? I suspect that even things that we currently do while driving (such as enjoying the scenery) could be made better.

I was surprised that when I ran “concepts for the passenger compartment of driverless vehicles” as a query in Google, I did not get any relevant results. Bing turned up one article from Trendhunter that draws from an article on Core77. Mike and Maaike, the industrial design studio that wrote the article, captured my issues elegantly and succinctly:

…despite 43 years of automotive progress, with its advances in safety, efficiency, and manufacturing, the driving experience remains basically the same as it was in 1963.

Mike and Maaike then go on to present some visions of how the car, as we know it, might change. The most notable shift would be that of one from driving to riding. That shift encompasses some pretty remarkable opportunities in terms of design:


If you distill the automobile down to a mechanical platform (which is not that difficult to imagine in the context of seeing the exposed frame of a Tesla Motors’ Model S). I can’t help but wonder two things:

  1. What happens if you turned passenger compartment design over to IDEO or Stanford’s Institute of Design (aka the You likely would start seeing more designs in similar veins to the ones envisioned by Mike and Maaike but that would be remarkably divergent from the status quo. Given the opportunity of driverless vehicles, though, divergent thinking is exactly what we need.
  2. What happens to passenger compartment design in the context of 3D printing? My thinking here is basically a riff on the import scene / tuner scene. If the car basically becomes a platform, will the body be standardized to a degree that allows for deep and broad customization? Safety standards are likely to persist until accidents become so rare that manufacturers decry the costs associated with meeting standards rooted in the late 20th century. Assuming a passenger compartment meets those (or the contemporary) standards, how might users customize the interiors to speak to their sensibilities?
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