Autonomy, Electrification & Car Design

I expect the design of upcoming autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be dramatically different from our cars of today.

I expect the design of upcoming autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be dramatically different from our cars of today. We rarely think how much the style of our current cars reflects the fact they are driven/controlled by us humans. I am surprised how much our human psychology informs car design and determines which vehicle we decide to buy. This will all change in the future when our cars are controlled by computers.

I began to see how radically different our upcoming AVs will be styled when teaching a mobility design class at College for Creative Studies (collegeforcreativestudies.edu). One student design for a futuristic new Uber vehicle got me thinking about this big change when we no longer control our vehicles. 

The proposed new Uber vehicle was larger than most of our cars today and had a very commanding presence. It featured three separate passenger pod areas inside, and an asymmetrical design focused on easy ingress and egress for passengers. It looked like the vehicle was designed by an architect, not a car designer. As an AV, it had no human driving the vehicle and thus eliminated key styling cues to the front of the vehicle.

I expect the familiar “face” of our cars and trucks to go away in the AV future. This may not seem like a big deal, but our vehicles have had lights that look like “eyes” and a front grill that looks like a “mouth” for over a century of automotive design.

It’s important to recognize our cars of today are “avatars”. They are a larger “skin-on-wheels” which we sit inside of and control. While I could not recognize a friend of mine from just a half block away, as they are too small to see, I am able to see their car from that distance. We often choose to purchase a vehicle that presents an image of ourselves that we like.

We can think of our cars as being a large driving “robot” that we control. We climb into our cars and can now speed down the freeway at 70 mph or more. Or we can carry a hockey team or a payload or perform other tasks with our vehicles. They are, in effect, “super-human,” which could go to explaining the face-like nature of vehicle front ends.

Many of us can remember a time in car design where the front headlights would pop-up when turned on, but could not be seen when not in use. This styling element didn’t last too long, as people preferred headlights (“eyes”) to always be seen. Today our headlights have never been more beautiful, intricate designs that are a key styling element.

The front grill, or mouth of the car, is another key design element. Consider the front grill of a new Audi or Lexus—they are very large. We have also seen the early electric cars, such as the Tesla Model S featuring a large black plastic (graphic) grill, indicating the car has a large mouth like our countless gasoline-powered vehicles. This large opening is not needed on the Model S from a functionality standpoint. 

Speaking of Tesla, the latest designs for the Model S, Model X, and new Model 3 eliminate this fake grill and eliminate the “mouth” graphic. This makes sense for an EV, but I wonder if their new design isn’t more about the coming future of Autopilot, and how their cars will be computer controlled?

We saw a different approach to a car’s eyes in the Pixar movie Cars. In this animated movie, the car’s eyes were on the windshield to allow them to be seen easier.

As we transition into the AV future, it’s interesting to see millions of consumers riding in an Uber or Lyft, but caring less about the vehicle design. We can choose between a basic car, an SUV, or a limo, depending on our choice at the time. Once that determination has been made, we seek a clean, comfortable and safe ride—but care less about the actual vehicle’s look.

We are beginning to see other futuristic AV designs that heavily depart from traditional car design. One proposal from the international design firm IDEO (ideo.com) looks more like a plain box, or “office” on wheels with no automotive styling cues at all. It suggests a future where computers drive and humans do not control the vehicle, and these future vehicles do not have any design elements that look like a person’s eyes or mouth or feature a symmetrical design like our human heads.