Designing for Autonomy: How Car Designers Are Preparing for the Future

We speak to five designers about the challenges and opportunities in creating for driverless mobility.

The transition to self-driving cars, when and if it happens, will represent what may be the single greatest change to the world of vehicle design. Car designers are thrilled about the opportunity, as they typically are about any so-called “white spaces”—flying cars, invisible cars, three-row crossover landaulets. But they are also daunted by such a future, in part because, as with any radical transition, there are a multitude of variables, not just in terms of capability and technology, but also consumer preference and behavior. And many of these core issues are as-yet entirely unclear.

“I look at autonomous as being a bigger change in human interaction with mobility than when we went from a horse and carriage to a horseless carriage,” says Stuart Norris, General Motors’ director of design for advanced mobility and experience. “And of course, we don’t know what we don’t know. Nobody is running autonomous vehicles at scale. You can’t just go to a traditional market-research event. The market doesn’t exist.”

Obvious and elemental among both the opportunities and the challenges is a wholesale rethinking of the notion of what a car can look like. Unconstrained by traditional requirements like a seating position that delivers visibility and controls within direct reach of a driver, the car’s exterior doesn’t need to evince classical proportions, and need not necessarily even have glass. Instead of being designed from the outside in, cars may become designed from the inside out.

“We’re able to explore completely different form factors because the interior becomes the defining shape of the vehicle and ingress/egress becomes a different ball of wax when you take away a traditional driving position, steering wheel, and the like,” says Norris. “You’re almost an interior architect, or designer of street architecture or furniture.”

Of course, a car is still an emotional purchase for an individual—and, despite hyperbolic prognostications, we highly doubt that individually owned vehicles will suddenly disappear. (And if they do, note how we even respond with favor or disfavor to the vehicles our ride-share drivers appear in: Oh, no, not another black Sonata?!) Sadly, while there is a plethora of options for lovely and compelling designs that speak to our human desire for grace and elegance, many of the autonomous concepts we’ve seen have retreated into outré lozenge/tube/cube form factors.

Bentley’s vision for what a luxurious autonomous car could look like.

“It’s a new freedom, entirely liberating,” says Paul Snyder, chair of the transportation design department at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, one of the nation’s premier schools for automotive design. “Though I’m unclear why everyone has responded to it by creating rolling toasters.”

This sensibility is echoed by other designers with whom we spoke. “I don’t understand why, if it’s a mobility product, it has to be ugly,” says Sangyup Lee, head of Genesis global design. “I would rather have a beautiful exterior to accommodate a wonderful user experience.”

One of the key current issues in creating designs for fully autonomous vehicles is how to deal with the cameras, radar, lidar, sensors, cellular connectivity, and other technologies that allow the car to see, process, and respond to roads, humans, infrastructure, and other obstacles. Right now, many of the developmental prototypes actually on the roads have these simply attached like carbuncles to the car’s grille, hood, roof, body, and trunk. But this will not fly in the future. Not just because it is hideous and people will not tolerate it, and not just because it limits aerodynamics—which are incredibly important to electric-powertrain range—but because it does not inspire confidence in consumers.

The interior of the Chevrolet-FNR concept, which has autonomous capabilities.

“You can see that the products are out there in the field being tested, they are not a holistic design experience. They’ve plonked a Ghostbusters-like machine array on the roof just to get the technology working,” says Norris. “It needs to come together as a holistic design solution. So the customer doesn’t feel like they’re being driving around in some cobbled-together science project.”

Again, this sentiment finds support among other colleagues working in the field. “The first challenge—not an opportunity yet—is what is going to happen with all of the sensors,” says Karim Habib, head of design for Infiniti. “This will require a new graphic sensibility.”

Moreover, we have yet to truly understand even elementally what it is that consumers may want from their experience in and with a self-driven vehicle. We’re a bit ahead of ourselves. “Technologically, we will likely get there, but psychologically, we have a long way to go,” says Andrew Smith, executive design director for Cadillac. “You know the dog that chases the car? We’re the dog that caught the car, and now what are we going to do with it? The big question is, how do you make AI not creepy?”

Some portion of the answer may come from simply allowing consumers (or riders or users) to retreat from all of the technology while being shrouded in it. According to Habib, anecdotal research from Infiniti’s advance design studio in China shows that, after the hellish commute that so many Chinese drivers have to endure, many of them just hang out in their parked car for 30 minutes once they return home, simply to decompress. Perhaps the self-driving car, for all of its connectivity, becomes a kind of sanctum or retreat from connectivity, the way that the airplane used to be before in-air Wi-Fi became ubiquitous.

We got a ride in the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion concept in 2015.

“Customers want just . . . nothing,” says Habib. “You’re always on. People need downtime. There’s an indication that the car can be an oasis of peace and quiet. Instead of all of this push marketing and calendar reminders, maybe we just need a meditation app?”

The design focus for AI thus becomes not a technological one, but a human one, about human behavior and preference and safety, and confidence. “We don’t talk about this as a self-driving car, but as a robot that moves people around,” says Norris. “There’s the really interesting psychological component of this. How do we combine a visual and an aesthetic that the makes the customer comfortable? That is not intimidating, that is approachable, that doesn’t become toy-ish and whimsical, that people can trust?”

It’s clear this particular white space will take some time to fill.