Children Discussing Autonomous Vehicles

What kids expect from driverless cars, and why it matters

Image credit: New Territory

Animal-car hybrids and gaming-toilet combos: 10 year olds have very different priorities from adults when asked what they want from autonomous vehicles.

‘If you had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’ Henry Ford

You’ve probably heard the quote many times before - I know I use it often - but according to the Harvard Business Review, there isn’t actually any evidence to suggest the auto pioneer ever said this.

True or not, it suggests that people in the pre-automotive era expected expected transport to evolve gradually from the horse-drawn carts they were familiar with. And by extension that consumers aren't able to verbalise or even imagine their transport needs beyond the one dimension of speed, instead settling on incremental improvements, over innovative and unimaginable leaps.

As a recent visit to a local primary school showed me, when it comes to driverless cars, this lack of imagination simply does not apply to 10- and 11-year-olds. The young people at this particular school don’t want a faster car - they want an animal-car hybrid or a gaming-toilet combo on wheels…

I was invited to Ashton St Peter’s Church of England VA Primary School in Dunstable to talk to a class of 10- and 11-year-olds about driverless cars. In my job at NewTerritory, I work on original experiences for driverless cars, but it dawned on me that we are naturally more focused on those old enough to drive legally – which doesn’t really make sense for driverless cars. I thought this school visit would be an ideal opportunity to get a whole new perspective, so I printed out several worksheets featuring an outline of an archetypal autonomous car, and asked the pupils to draw what they wanted from their own driverless-car experience.

Having studied each of their ideas in detail with my colleagues, it became abundantly clear that what kids want is somewhat different from what we adults want. Not only that, but there were some very obvious female-skewed ideas, male-skewed ideas, and then some that applied to all.

Many of the girls in the class focused on animals and nature. In fact, several of the vehicles themselves had animal-like appearances with pet facilities on board. One took on the guise of a moose, while others appeared to be modelled on a cat. Further to that, plants and natural materials furnished the interior of their vehicles, with technology taking a back seat.

In terms of what the girls wanted to do in their vehicles, their interior designs seemed to be tailored to comfort and relaxation, with many seating and sleeping arrangement ideas.

Boys, on the other hand, wanted to party, it seems. Almost all of the boys in the class focused more on sport, gaming and partying, with concept names such as ‘Games on Wheels’, ‘Party FC Car’, ‘Party! Time!’ and ‘Party Transport’. As you can imagine, these vehicles were loaded with the latest in technology, from sensors to PlayStation 5s, free Wi-Fi, charging stations and electronically connected sports fields.

Child's Autonomous Car Design

All journeys seem long for young people, so toilet facilities, food and entertainment are key aspects of their driverless car experience

Image credit: New Territory

Arguably, these insights are somewhat expected and, for whatever reason, appear to fall into gender stereotypes. But for me the eye-opening insights come from where the similarities lie. Practically all of the children honed in on the environmental and social benefits of the vehicle, citing pollution and accident-free mobility for everyone as a core proposition and an absolute necessity in future.

Safety features appeared in only a few concepts, however, with just eight of the 24 pupils factoring this into their sketches. It appears that the trust and safety advantages so widely discussed when we talk about driverless cars are confined to the adults. To children trust is a given; they have other needs to prioritise.

Another similarity was their focus on the journey itself, with as few as five pupils featuring any sort of destination or navigation-based features (perhaps because they’re used to the taxi of mum or dad), instead favouring concepts that complement their enjoyment of the ride.

Further to that, of the 24 pupils in the class, 16 wanted an in-car toilet, 11 wanted sleeping arrangements and a whopping 20 pupils had imagined eating and drinking facilities too.

As much as we discussed how short these trips might be, the pupils still planned for longevity. There are many studies that suggest that our perception of time changes as we get older, with time speeding up after our formative years. One might speculate that, to a 10-year-old, all journeys are long journeys, at least by their definition, no matter what the duration, and so toilets, beds, food and entertainment options are a must.

As the old adage goes; it's not the destination, but the journey that matters - at least to 10- and 11-year-olds. Whilst safety seems to be the core concern for adults in driverless cars, children look to elevate the experience.

Tim Smith is design x creative tech director at NewTerritory.

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