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Driver-less car design: Sleep-walking into the future?

There is something hugely appealing about the driver-less car. Even the most gear-headed among us has sat in a traffic jam and thought ‘surely I could be doing something better with my time’.

At CES this week, Mercedes-Benz unveiled their F015 Luxury in Motion driverless car concept to showcase some ideas around this. It’s a hugely significant juncture for both automotive design and advanced mobility, dripping with some undoubtedly very alluring tech.

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The best design has always been a reflection of its time and society. So if we look at what the F015 Luxury in Motion, and last year’s Rinspeed XchangeE (another driverless car concept - shown above) suggest, it’s a world where people want to shut themselves off from the outside and instead have a digital experience. Yes, they perhaps sit with friends but ultimately spend more time fiddling with their phones and tablets than paying any attention to real people or the outside world. As I sit in my city centre office writing this and look out at the people walking below, heads down, earphones in and attention completely focused on the small screen in their hand, you’d have to say the designers of the F015 and XchangeE have nailed it.  

The F015 is without doubt significant – it’s the first time an automotive OEM has created a dedicated, autonomous driving car concept. Yet in making this move, Mercedes-Benz has thrown up more questions than answers. That autonomous cars are going to happen is a given. That they’ll make roads safer is a sure bet too. So the questions (beyond people’s psychological issues with not driving) that arise sit around the kind of environment people want to be in, their relationship with others in the car, with the outside environment the car is travelling through and then the digital realm beyond that. 

The way things stand though, we’re sleep-walking into a scenario where autonomous cars become massive digital devices – (yet another) medium through which to experience digital stuff, while being totally disconnected from the physical world around us. But is anyone stopping to ask whether that’s a desirable scenario?

In reality the envisioned scenarios sees the car risk becoming a ‘transition space’ – like a queue in a shop – where we end up bored and then distract ourselves by watching yet another Youtube cat video. 

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A cynical view? Maybe – and it’s hard not to pursue this line of thought without sounding anti-progressive. So let’s be clear – driverless cars have an undoubtedly huge role to play in the future. Their ability to liberate us – create less deadtime, reduce death and injury and extend private mobility to the frail, infirm or those physically unable to drive current cars is potentially fantastic.

What I’m questioning here is what we want to do with our time and about who (or more likely what) – gets our attention. There’s a brilliant bloghere from four years ago by the now sadly defunct Berg London, talking about the attention grabbing qualities of devices; how they make you look less at the real world. Matt Jones sums it up:

As car designers, it sometimes feels like we’re saying “look, we can offer something even better than your iPhone”, but (even if that’s possible) is this really such a great vision of the future? Or does it simply mean you end up with one of two in-car scenarios: a – you work on your way to and from work as well as at work; or b – cat video.

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These are superficial, top-of-the-head ideas – but they each hint at the potential for autonomous cars to be a starting point for something new, unique and interesting for car design. And that as designers, it's our role to create a car environment which inspires, and attracts enough attention, that it can keep occupants' eyes away from the smartphone in their hands and ultimately that godforsaken cat video. In short, we need to create alternative yet compelling visions rather than letting blind faith in connective technology sleep-walk us into the future.