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in-depth reports from the major International Auto Shows.
A weekly-ish look at news, trends and industry news
Autonomous car interiors: thinking beyond screens
What is the future of the (fully) autonomous car interior? Last week I spoke at the autonomous vehicle interior design & technology symposium in Stuttgart, as part of the Automotive Interiors Expo 2017.
Although the conference usefully highlighted a candid belief from across the industry that full, Level-5 autonomous vehicles aren’t going to become a mainstream proposition until probably sometime in the 2040s, getting there is a challenge for here and now. And as designers we are going to play a huge role in how successful autonomous cars are, and what kind of experiences they offer, by painting visions of this future world.
In October last year, I bought a BMW i3. The pure electric version, to be precise. Six months on, I’m presenting here a series of thoughts — design challenges, both big and small, that EV usership and ownership creates. While partly driven by the specifics of the i3’s design, these are bigger picture issues, representative of electric cars generally. They warrant addressing if the industry is serious about large scale market adoption of EVs.
While nobody can be certain of the future of the automobile, it seems fairly clear now that the rise of ride hailing, ride sharing, EVs, and autonomous vehicles is not likely to wane and will likely change everything about the industry — and possibly of our lives, cities, and infrastructure too. Autonomous EVs now make up the majority of concepts at the major auto shows and billions of dollars, euro and yuan are being poured into making it happen. But one of the biggest changes that will happen comes from the how we interact with the use of the car in a broader context than simply fold-away steering wheels or giant infotainment screens.
It’s a small detail. It’s just a button. And a knob. Used to flip from the radio to Spotify, or the music on your phone. Or simply turn the volume up and down. And yet driving the new Volkswagen Golf (Mk 7.5) the other week, emphasised a view that we’ve held for some time now, that this small part is a critically important part of the current in-car user experience.
C-factor is still the future of Chinese car design
At the first car design conference in China in 2008, run by the Chinese Society of Automotive Engineers, Car Design Research presented a paper on ‘C-factor’. C-factor is the idea that Chinese car design might seek to be (better) known as Chinese – to have some identifiable, and attractive ‘Chinese-ness’ just as many other cars have a nationally specific design orientation. It was a long time ago, and there has been much talk of ‘C-factor’ since, but earlier this year in Beijing when we were reviewing most of the new Chinese market designs it seemed pretty clear that Chinese car design has yet to find its C-factor. All the cars we looked at were generically ‘western-ish’ car designs - none had any particularly Chinese quality. But what should this ‘C-factor’ be — what might Chinese car design come to be known as, and does it really matter?
Today the way we use a car is like this: stop all the things we are doing; leave our homes and get into our car; drive somewhere; leave our car and get into the new place we have travelled to; resume doing things. Driving a car is like a punctuation to our day’s activities; for the periods of time we are in our cars we pause the activities we were doing - we stop our work or pleasure to drive, and we travel in a wheeled room vastly different to that of any space we spend time in when not travelling.
Tomorrow this will be quite different. Leaving our homes to travel in “Car 2.0” will be less of a punctuation - we will more seamlessly transition from home to car to other place. And this is for two big reasons, one much talked about today, and one not talked about quite so much…
We spend a lot of time at Car Design Research working with our clients to map out their future Automotive Design Strategy — the unsexy bit of car design, perhaps. It’s our daily bread. Just as businesses perform better with a future strategy and demand product and marketing strategies to realise this, so car design steps beyond just styling when it is part of a strategic vision.
But what it is a Car Design Strategy? What does this unsexy bit of car design comprise of?
The Tesla Supercharger: so much more than just free electricity
Tesla has done a remarkable job of building its brand from scratch, and in doing so it has repeatedly shown that it’s thinking bigger than just the vehicles themselves. Tesla has been highly unusual for car company, building its own infrastructure in the form of Supercharger stations — strategically positioned points (typically on the motorway/highway network) allowing Tesla drivers to fast recharge their batteries on the go (an 80% charge takes around 40 minutes, which is must faster than conventional public charging points).
In the UK, there’s a Tesla supercharger station at Hopwood Park services, on the M42 Motorway south of Birmingham, which I didn’t know about until I called in for fuel and coffee on my way back from a wedding at the weekend.
When Google put 100 of its driverless test cars into the hands of its employees to use in their regular, everyday commute life, the company was surprised. Not by the fact that the cars did what they were supposed to, and none crashed. But that within a few hours of even the most hardened skeptic “Porsche driving enthusiast” had become so confident in the car’s autonomous capabilities that they started to exhibit "silly behaviour", performing other tasks and believing the car would cope with any situation and they could do over things. This despite being warned they needed to oversee the car and be prepared to take control at any given moment.