Design students envision the future of driverless cars

A recent course called "Driving Sensations" at the ArtCenter College of Design asked students to envision what riding in a driverless car would actually feel like.

Auto and tech companies are racing to solve the riddle of how to get fully self-driving cars on the road. There have been speed bumps, for sure. There was the deadly collision of a Tesla driver while his car was in autopilot recently, and engineers at Google’s self-driving car unit have been leaving in droves. And yet Ford last month announced that in the next five years it will roll out a ridesharing service that only uses driverless cars.

Most coverage of self-driving, or autonomous, cars has focused on the technology and the infrastructure to make this possible. But a recent course taught at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena had students consider what riding in such a car would actually feel like.

The class, called “Driving Sensations,” focused on everything from how the car feels and smells, how it communicates with you, and what you actually see when you’re riding inside the car. There were four teams, comprised of students who are in various departments, from interactive design, product design and transportation design to graphic design, illustration and fine art. The concept is that while a driverless car needs to get you from point A to B, it’s otherwise a blank slate. It doesn’t need to look anything like the cars of today, aside from having wheels and an engine or motor.

The car prototype ARVI (Augmented Reality Vehicular interface) is a social gaming experience in a moving platform. Photo by Nik Hafermaas.
The car prototype ARVI (Augmented Reality Vehicular interface) is a social gaming experience in a moving platform. Photo by Nik Hafermaas.

The groups presented four very different visions of a driverless car. One was a car for a family, and the car had a personality that communicates with the users. One car played more of a subservient role, like a chauffeur. One created a physical haptic response of feeling like you’re in any car of your choosing. Another was focused on entertainment.

The entertainment-themed car brought in concepts from the worlds of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality and gaming. In this prototype, the passenger sits in a pod-like car, with a glass dome that rotates as the car drives. And projected onto the glass can be your Facebook updates, Yelp reviews for restaurants you’re passing, Tinder messages, etc. It also can be what they call an “interactive game engine” in which the car puts you inside a video game world in which you can shoot alien spaceships out of the sky and watch buildings explode like in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Philippe Enzler is one of the members of that group. And he said his group’s mission was to “get rid of boredom.”

“The concept is fully autonomous and that that was sort of what we were going after anyway, was the idea of making an autonomous car fun. So it’s strictly a fully autonomous car. You engage with the environment and that’s how you maybe even pick destinations. Certain games may only work in certain places, so you actually have to physically move around the world in order to do certain things in a game, for example,” Enzler said.

The OHANA prototype offered a vision of a "car taker," a vehicle that becomes the 5th member of your family and uses emotion analysis to read your mood and know if you need a break or food, etc. Two of the four team members are Christine Meinders, a graduate student in Media Design Practices and Astha Vagadia, an undergraduate in Product Design. Photo by Nik Hafermaas.
The OHANA prototype offered a vision of a “car taker,” a vehicle that becomes the 5th member of your family and uses emotion analysis to read your mood and know if you need a break or food, etc. Photo by Nik Hafermaas.

What if you don’t want to play video games in a self-driving car? One group focused on the idea of a family experience inside such a car. They refer to their prototype a “living room on wheels”. Their car uses artificial intelligence and emotional analysis to read your internet activity, your heart rate, the tone of your speech, etc. to understand the “digital emotional profile” of each family member and respond accordingly. In a hypothetical family of four, they refer to the car as the “fifth member” of the family and a “cartaker” for the family.

“We talked about at the very beginning that idea of naming your car. It’s the personification of the car,” said Christine Meinders, one of the group’s members, “because you’re creating that connection or that personification but you can really adjust it. You’re aware that it can take this information and essentially make smart decisions. It knows you, knows your preferences and there’s something about really lovely about someone knowing what you want to do or knowing how you are physically feeling.”

This all sounds very futuristic, but in fact companies are working on this technology right now. All the legacy car companies are racing forward with their own self-driving car technology. Ford plans to roll out a driverless ridesharing service. General Motors has partnered with Lyft to do the same, as Volvo has with Uber. Google, Apple and Tesla are all working on driverless car technology.

BMW has announced it will deliver fully self-driving vehicles in China in 2021. It’s teamed with Intel and the Israeli computer vision company Mobileye.

“There’s definitely an increased focus on the interior experience at BMW, for sure. But I think it’s also important to think about the transitions. I don’t necessarily get excited about the idea of only having one option in the vehicle. I want to see a slider between I’m driving and fully autonomous, that allows me to toggle depending on the context of driving,” said Mike Milley of BMW, who came to check out the student prototypes.

ARTI is designed as a tool to enhance a ride sharing or car sharing experience, ARTI is a crystal device inserted into the car’s dash that knows your preferences for coffee, your schedule, favorite music, etc. to create the ideal ride. A message appears on the dashboard with a calming lighting system to gently guide you on your journey explaining "you’ll be late for your meeting,” for example if you go to your fav latte maker, why not try this similar one instead.
ARTI is designed as a tool to enhance a ride sharing or car sharing experience. It’s a device inserted into the car’s dash that knows your preferences for coffee, your schedule, favorite music, etc. to create the ideal ride. Photo by Nik Hafermaas.

Milley added that the future is about flexibility and customization. And he said this future isn’t going to happen all of a sudden.

“You have to think about autonomous vehicles as not something that is going to be a moment of boom, it’s suddenly an autonomous vehicle. We have vehicles that are now on the road that have autonomous features. Whether it’s ‘staying in lane’ notifications, intelligent cruise, those kinds of things really already have some of those elements of an autonomous drive experience. Those are just getting slowly turned up over the next 5-10 years,” Milley said.

If you like the sense of driving a normal, gas-powered, person-driving car, this may not be the future for you. We like our cars. We see them as extensions of ourselves. And we like driving, when we’re not stuck in traffic. We also like knowing that if something goes wrong, we might be able to fix it.

We also have a hard time relinquishing control to robots. One of the ArtCenter groups had to delay their presentation because their laptop fell asleep. It was a reminder that technology does fail us at times.

“As someone who is a car enthusiast, a great part of my enthusiasm is the idea that I can actually do at least minor repairs,” said Nik Hafermaas, chair of the graphic design department at ArtCenter. “I can open the hood. I kind of know how the engine works. I have a set of tools that I can apply to it. If we’re now living in an age of the iPhone-isolation of the car where it just becomes this hermetic neutral shape that there’s not even a tool in consumers hands to open it, do I still own that car? Do I own something that I can not manipulate? And how do I establish enough trust in the machine that I say, okay, I’m hands free and I’ll let this thing do whatever it does with me?”

The VIYA prototype allows users to select an instrument panel of a classic car, super car or hot rod while wearing a VR headset to experience the ride of your choice. Photo by Nik Hafermaas.
The VIYA prototype allows users to select an instrument panel of a classic car, super car or hot rod while wearing a VR headset to experience the ride of your choice. Photo by Nik Hafermaas.

There’s another element some might miss: the physical feeling of driving a conventional car. One group’s prototype allows you to program your self-driving car to mimic any car you want, from a Fiat to a Ferrari to a Volkswagen Beetle. The driver can select an instrument panel of a classic car, super car or hot rod. The rumbling sounds, the positioning of the seat, the smell of the upholstery or the exhaust, the design of the dashboard, and even the feeling of where the wheels are placed can be reproduced. And a VR headset shows you what it would look like from the seat of the car you’ve picked.

One component of this driverless car future may be the disappearance of car ownership. Ford is working on a driverless car ridesharing service. One ArtCenter group came up with a way to take your personal information with you using what’s basically a USB stick, but when you put it in the car it adjusts the seats, lighting, temperature, music, etc. to your preferences.

The idea of a driverless car having a personality may also turn some people off. In one simulation, a student driver asked the car to stop for coffee, and the car told her no, you’ll be late for your meeting. Would a driver want to argue with their car about whether it’ll stop for coffee?