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Driverless cars open up new vistas in automotive design

Image credit: Volkswagen

Cars turning driverless could completely change the way they look and feel. In a few years, traditional vehicle designs may be a thing of the past. Whether the first fully autonomous car rolls onto the road in five, 10 or even 30 years’ time, one of the biggest questions is: what will it look like?

All big players in the automotive industry are experimenting with autonomous technology and it’s only a matter of time before someone releases the first commercially available driverless vehicle. Recently, manufacturers have been unveiling concept cars, presenting their vision of future autonomous design. It’s a veritable ‘pick-and-mix’ of sleek designs and racing exteriors, but do these concepts really represent the driverless future?

“Bear in mind that these are concept cars,” says product and transport designer Frederik Vanden Borre. “When car manufacturers release these, they want to express something full-on. These new features can then rein down into actual production vehicles, which have more restraint.

“I think a feature in the future will be material usage. As large-scale 3D printing becomes more approachable, it will also become more detailed,” he says, pointing to the historical rise of complex baroque design styles brought on by a surplus of cheap labour. “As 3D printing becomes cheaper, it will enable designers to make very small details in car design.”

The idea of a 3D-printed car might seem far-fetched, but, newcomer to the market Divergent 3D unveiled a fully printed sports car at CES in January. This manufacturing method has been touted to offer benefits in weight, strength and durability, but there is another potential advantage – customisation.

As humans, we go to great lengths to show off our sense of style and good taste, hiring interior designers and architects to design our homes – so why not our cars? One of the voices at the forefront of this idea is Rolls-Royce, which recently unveiled a fully-customisable autonomous concept vehicle, the 103EX.

“The 103EX represents a very personal vision,” says James Warren, product and corporate communications manager for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. “We are predicting what a customer might commission in the future. From a design point of view, that would be rather striking, and allude to the proportions of a Rolls-Royce that have existed for 100 or so years.”

An important note here is the throwback to classic design. The 103EX concept is remarkable, but still quintessentially Rolls-Royce. A look at other concept cars shows similar thinking. The Renault Trezor has forgone traditional doors in favour of a sliding roof, a style of entry which is described by Renault as expressing a “throwback to the world of classic racing cars, wherein drivers felt as one with their machines”, while Mercedes-Benz’s Luxury in Motion oozes modern extravagance, but still maintains classic streamlined Mercedes characteristics.

“Some say that the role of the exterior will be overtaken by interior design in the future,” says Hosan Song, vehicle design student at the Royal College of Art, whose design for a driverless Mercedes-Benz racecar features a classic racing exterior without a cockpit. “But throughout history people have always wanted to create pleasing aesthetics.”

Unfortunately, the luxury aspect of the personal autonomous vehicle is somewhat inevitable. If design is all about customisation and expressing yourself through your car – not to mention being chauffeured around – they are bound to come with a hefty price tag.

A peek inside the future of autonomous car design takes the idea of luxury to the next level. On the outside, they will need to look like cars. The inside is a different matter.

“What vehicles will look like and the very concepts we attach to them today are under rapid revision” says Jan-Philipp Gehrmann, strategic marketing manager at NXP Semiconductors, adding that manufacturers have to “reimagine what it means to be a passenger as opposed to a driver.”

In the past, cars have been designed for one thing: driving. Without a driver, or a steering wheel, there is a new priority for manufacturers – passenger comfort. In future, cars will offer more than the method of getting from A to B, and instead, says James Warren of Rolls-Royce, become “a very personal sanctuary for people to indulge themselves inside”.

A big change we are likely to see in the future cockpit is the seating layout. Seats will no longer need to face forward, and can instead face inwards to aid conversation, or rotate to suit passenger needs. When Mercedes unveiled its rear-facing cabin in 2015, it was considered a real thing of the future, but now the majority of driverless concepts have followed suit. The cabin of an autonomous car becomes a place to socialise, conduct business or relax. Multiple interactive screens could allow passengers to  watch television, browse the internet, conduct face-to-face calls, or continue working while on their daily commute.

Intelligent in-car technology is another big feature of the future car, with more manufacturers looking into systems that can adapt to suit individual needs. A smart seating system, which analyses passenger comfort and adapts accordingly, is being developed by automotive parts supplier Faurecia. Other companies are focusing on in-car artificial intelligence (AI) systems which double up as personal assistants.

Unveiled at this year’s CES, the Toyota Concept-I comes with its own in-car AI system, Yui. Using biometric sensors, Yui is able to detect how a driver is feeling, make recommendations and if necessary, take over to drive safely to their destination.

Bosch has similar ideas with its concept car, which incorporates innovative technologies that kick in the moment a driver sits down. Facial recognition sets the steering wheel, mirrors, interior temperature and radio station according to individual driver preferences.

Both the Bosch and Toyota systems focus on assisted driving rather than full autonomy, but offer an interesting glimpse into the future of interior car design, where passenger comfort is priority, and travelling is an indulgent experience.

“Alongside the home and office, the car will become the third living environment and a personal assistant,” says Bosch CEO Dr Volkmar Denner.

An interesting take on this is seen in Rinspeed’s Oasis concept car, which comes complete with a steering wheel that doubles up as a table or desk and its own mini greenhouse, for gardening on the move.

If you’ve read this far and are despairing at the thought you may never experience an autonomous car, fear not. It could well be that self-driving vehicles will be part of everyone’s daily commute – you just might not own one. This technology has the potential to completely reinvent ideas of public transport and car-sharing. After all, if a car doesn’t need a driver, what is to stop it operating 24/7?

We’ve already seen trials of driverless pods emerging across the UK as a potential solution to public transport within big cities. One such scheme, which trialled last year in Milton Keynes, is the RDM Group Driverless Pod, designed to transport people on the first and last leg of their journey.

In terms of the future of autonomous pod and car design, Miles Garner from RDM sees community ownership and rental as a prominent feature. “In the future, we won’t be buying cars in the way that we actually buy cars at the moment” he says. “You will just call a car or a pod as and when you need it, and it will arrive, take you on your journey, and then another person will call the same vehicle. That really is the vision of where the future is.”

One such concept was thought up by Frederik Vanden Borre at Royal College of Art’s vehicle design school, in the form of a public service vehicle called Loop. “Personal cars are statically parked for 96 per cent of the time,” he says. “Autonomous technology allows us to rethink transportation, with potential for autonomous vehicles to just endlessly circulate in the city, without the need for vehicles statically parked for most of their working lives.”

Vanden Borre says that the Loop concept has been designed to appeal to a variety of users. “Some people say it is a little bit cute,” he says. “I tried to express security, but also friendliness, to say ‘you can trust me even though I am autonomous’”.

A similar design technique seems to have been used in the design of the Google self-driving car project (now Waymo) prototype ‘Koala car’, which, with a small pod-like design and face-like front features, is nothing short of adorable.

“It is a common trend within public transportation to be more friendly and approachable,” says Vanden Borre. “If you look at individual personal cars like BMW or Audi, they are more aggressive. But if you are working with autonomous public transport, these are vehicles that people need to be able to count on.”

Elsewhere in the automotive market, car designers have been thinking about potential car-sharing within cities with their new concept cars. The Rinspeed Oasis, Honda Neuv and Mini Vision Next 100 are just some examples of autonomous concepts that come with the car-sharing option. One thing they have in common is a small, secure body and somewhat unimposing design that is perfect for city driving.

While these cars are sure to appeal to the general population, they do offer some customisable aspects to help suit passenger needs. The display-covered interior of the Rinspeed is designed to allow fully tailored journeys for individual passengers, while the Mini changes its exterior colour depending on who it is due to pick up. Who said car-sharing had to be boring?

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