In the car market today, the feature that most distinguishes cars from one another is the overall feel of the drive. This includes the handling, the feel of the breaking system, the feel of the steeling, and acceleration. All of these elements have one thing in common, they are all focused around a human driver. When you spend an average of over 290 hours a year in your car, this makes sense. As a consumer, it is worth it to spend a couple thousand extra dollars in order to get a car that is more enjoyable to drive. However, with the ubiquitous adoption of autonomous vehicles looming ahead, these features all become obsolete. If you are not operating the vehicle, consumers will no longer be will to shell out extra money for a bigger engine or some tighter handling. Instead, the focus of design will be on the interior feel of the car.
There are two facets to the interior feel, the actual interior of the car itself; ie the orientation of the seats, the legroom, etc, and the ride of the car felt while you are a passenger. The first part of this is currently large area of study. With no need for steering wheels, gauges, or even a windshield, the possibilities are endless. Concept cars have increasingly began to look into this question. Most of them focus on making the interior a sort of living room, allowing for greater leisure or productivity while traveling.
However, the more interesting question is how this interior will interact with the passengers and outside environment. Despite being autonomous, the system most likely will still rely on some level of human input, even if it is just navigation or alerts. For this reason, a system of communication with the vehicle is necessary. For semi-autonomous vehicles, BMW has been working on making these controls as unobtrusive as possible, creating a hologram at eye level to provide controls to the driver. This is an interesting solution because it could make the steering wheel obsolete and be further adapted to fully autonomous vehicles to provide an interface to the passengers without the need for anyone to be in the drivers seat.
The second second facet of interior design is the feel of the ride. Since the driver or passengers are not controlling the car, they care very little about the way the car feels to drive, and thus, allows manufacturers to focus development on making the drive as smooth and efficient as possible. Michelin, one of the largest tire manufacturers has been researching a completely redesigned wheel that is completely airless called ‘Vision’. The tire itself, unlike conventional tires, is completely 3D printed and manufactured from bio-sourced and biodegradable materials.
Gettys, the executive VP for research and development at Michelin stated that “As vehicles become more automated, the requirements for handling and driving pleasure are greatly diminished… And as such, there’s going to be a huge shift in customer expectations toward comfort and noise.”
As such, it allows the manufacturers to focus their research on improving comfort, efficiency, and the use of renewable materials. Furthermore, 3D printing tires could also foster the creation of smarter and safer autonomous vehicles. Since the entire wheel is printed and not filled with air, sensors could be embedded into any part of the wheel itself. Currently, 3D printers are able to print entire circuits or parts with the circuitry built into the structure and thus, applying this technology to the Vision wheel could enable new ways to develop autonomous vehicles. An interesting new option in autonomous driving as opposed to visual recognition is using the footprint of the road to determine where the car can drive. This involves mapping the ground beneath the road. The tires are always in contact with the road and thus, this technology could theoretically be integrated directly into the tire itself.
The possibilities for design of self driving cars are endless and it will be fascinating to see how car design changes as the technology develops. One thing is certain however, cars of the future will most likely resemble the cars of today very little and we can look forward to a much more comfortable commute.