Think of a typical dashboard in a car: it's full of signs, sensors, indicators and toggles that provide information to a driver and help them make decisions. If, in theory, an autonomous vehicle (AV) can make these choices without human intervention, the role of a car and its passengers would completely change.
What's a passenger's role in the driving experience if they don't need to keep their eyes on the road at all times? And, by extension, what's the role of the car in a household, beyond just transporting people from one place to another?
All of these questions will feed into how the user experience of an AV is designed and developed: that includes not only the physical features of the car, but also its internal software. Designers are already starting to tackle this question: in early 2022, tech brand LG Electronics debuted an in-car user system designed for AVs, complete with space for passengers to work, exercise and watch TV. The LG Omnipod can be controlled using a smartphone or voice commands: the idea is to extend the concept of a smart home to an AV.
According to Dalal Elsheikh, an advanced AV designer at car manufacturer Ford, ‘the movement towards autonomy means a shift in focus from the vehicle to those inside it.’ That should be the starting point for those designing the interiors of AVs: ‘Relieving the passenger from the task of driving allows for a new social paradigm inside a car,’ she says. ‘We can move from asking “what do people need to do in their car?” to “what do they want to do?”’
‘Moving away from the driving experience to the passive passenger experience turns the car into what we call the third space,’ she continues. ‘Riders may seek opportunities to catch up on work or take a meeting on the way to the office, or families may find the vehicle to be a hotel on the road for long-distance travel. As far as what's speculative and what's possible, that's at the mercy of federal legislation.’
As Dalal points out, it's not just the dashboard of a car that's likely to change from what's typical: we might see manufacturers experimenting with seat placement, storage, screens, lighting and mirrors. And, beyond the car manufacturing industry, there are infinite possibilities for the interior accessories sector, too, she adds, given how much can be customized: ‘Because there's such a wide spectrum of users and use cases, original equipment manufacturers can't create experiences tailored to every user. Edge cases, like small children and family pets, are gaps that smaller manufacturers can fill. You'll find that opportunities in accessibility and inclusion, like compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, are often left for aftermarket manufacturers as well.’
And, although it's easy to get carried away with the possibilities of what an AV could offer, it's also important to come back to the practicalities: most, if not all, AVs will still require some level of focus from drivers and passengers. So, some mechanisms to control the vehicle and see the road will also have to be baked into any in-car software, Dalal says. ‘Because we're still a while away from fully autonomous passenger vehicles being road legal, there's still a heavy focus on correctly communicating the technology, so drivers understand their responsibility in operating the vehicle.’ The challenge for those developing in-car systems for AVs is how to balance a space for relaxation and entertainment with one that's safe for both passengers and other road users.