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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.

My own talk was designed to agitate thought, and challenge industry to think beyond current paradigms. Because throughout automotive history, the concept car has played a significant role in trying to frame, shape and pull customers towards the future. Many of today’s concept cars explore autonomy and the future passenger experience — and broadly, that experienced is focused around screens. 

When a person drives a car, they look out of the windscreen at the road ahead — the future comes towards them, they connect with the outside, and react to the physical environment they’re driving through. But remove the need to drive, and there’s no longer a need to look outside. And so, the person who was driving the car, can now engage in other activities. And if we look at today’s visions of the future, most of them envisage the person inside looking at a screen and — more often than not — consuming digital content.


Not driving. Not looking outside. Cut off from the outside world, ignoring it. Insulated. Doing what today, many people do in every other aspect of life when they’re bored; reaching into a pocket, pulling out a phone or tablet and just escaping from what’s going on around them. Even if that quite often means ignoring people.

What’s the issue with this? Our perspective is quite simple. Much of the value (and I use that term in its broadest sense) of being in the car, is that way it acts as mediator between those inside and those outside. How the occupant’s experience changes, is influence very much on where the car is, what space it is moving through. But there’s much more to it than this. The car as a device, communicates an identity that we — as its owner or occupant — want to provide to the outside world. Its design creates meaning. And — increasingly — the car even today acts as a useful augmentation layer, helping us to understand more, to discover new things — about the outside world we are moving through. But right now, we see many concepts presented as a lounge on wheels. The issue with this is that a lounge doesn’t go anywhere. It is one place. It is not moving through space. If being in a car is going to truly feel like being at home, then this future idea of ‘car’ is going to give occupant less of an experience, not more. We need to find ways for the car to unlock unique value to its occupants. To give them more. To give them an experience they can’t get simply sitting still in their lounge.


If the future autonomous experience becomes inward-facing and screen-focused, then automotive brands will hand the future of in-car experience to the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook et al — to those who will deliver us the content we all consumer so vociferously. And that will render the car — the physical device — as a commodity box. That’s a dangerous future for the automotive brands to embrace, when right now so much of the reason someone chooses a car is based on emotive, brand-led values and perceptions. 

So instead, we propose that the real opportunity presented by autonomous cars is to enhance, and augment the special and unique qualities of being in a car. To create an experience which engages, and holds the attention in a way which goes beyond the screen. By better connecting the user to the world around the car — rather than cutting users off from it. Of course, there will be digital components within this. But to see it as limited to a screen within the vehicle or found in the user’s pocket is short-sighted. 

In simple terms, we need to see this as an opportunity to think and envisage beyond current paradigms. To shoot for the stars. Rather than (literally) have occupants looking at their hands.