Twenty years ago, a mobile phone was perceived and used as a single-purpose device: making phone calls while on the go. Nowadays, with the explosion of apps and media for mobile devices, the phone part of smartphones has quickly become the least interesting—and arguably the least used—feature of these devices. Similarly, today, we think of our cars primarily as transportation devices. However, like the perceptual shift of the mobile phone from single-purpose telephone to multipurpose communications and media device, our perceptions and uses of cars is about to change from simple transportation utility to full-blown entertainment centers.
Indeed, as an automobile becomes a different kind of utility, no longer just a vehicle, we can start to think of it as an extension of our homes and offices. With the advent of Google’s self-driving cars and other prototypes of autonomous vehicles, our conception of what cars can do and our relationship to operating them are being challenged in new ways.
In January 2013, Anthony Levandowski, the head of Google’s autonomous driving project, spoke at the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) conference in Washington, D.C., and announced that Google would be ready to release autonomous-driving technology in three to five years. Since it usually takes car builders three to seven years to create a new model, we can safely estimate that self-driving vehicles will hit the road in 2020.
Another way to approach the idea of a self-driving car is to think of it as a driverless car. In that sense, it becomes much easier to envision a car as a mobile living area in which we don’t expect to just sit and watch the road go by. The interior design of a driverless car will undoubtedly blur the line between a vehicle, a living room, a mobile office, a meeting room, a playroom and even a bedroom. In other words, it will allow us to go on with our daily activities as we move from one place to another.
The future of the automobile will be centered on a new type of user who is no longer an in-control driver but the occupant of a space that can be configured to fulfill different needs. We should expect driverless cars to be equipped with screens, desks, printers, beds, refrigerators, microwave ovens, coffee machines and gaming systems. Just as the design of smartphones has moved away from the “phone” look, we can presume that the “car” aspect of a smartcar will slowly disappear.
Pushing the comparison even further, we can imagine that our cars will ultimately contain a unique identifying SIM/MIM card just like the one in our mobile devices. This will give cars the capacity to gather information and share the data they collect with other cars and their owners. While our car is charging, it will be able to transfer information about its current condition to our car maintenance service as well as to the charging station to let it know what sort of battery it has and how fast it should be charged. This will allow for energy to be distributed in a much smarter way among the electrical grid and reduce the risk of overloads when lots of cars are recharging at the same time.
Cars Talking Among Themselves
We can presume that the self-driving car will always be online and communicate real-time information about traffic and weather as well as driving and road conditions. Instead of having drivers report traffic conditions to radio stations, who in turn communicate it to other drivers, cars will simply communicate with each other and with road infrastructure systems.
Just as Google already gathers data through third-party services and through information from Android users who have opted-in to the My Location feature on Google Maps, a network of connected cars would be able to convey traffic information with great precision.
Taking all of this information into account, a smartcar will be able to modify its course to use the quickest route or adjust its speed to make sure it gets to the next traffic light when it turns green. Once vehicles and road infrastructure start communicating with each other online, the range of opportunities is endless.
Having cars connected to the Internet also means that they can be linked to social network services where non-driving-related information can be shared. When we think of driver-vehicle or inter-vehicle interactions, we always assume that the exchange of information will be devoid of emotional and social content. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that humans sitting in cars often make decisions based on emotions and social cues.
Furthermore, as smartcars will relieve the driver of his or her main task, namely driving, we can only expect the amount of social information to increase. Connected vehicles can share an enormous amount of data about its passengers, from music or video content being played to food and beverages being consumed, and even passenger interactions, feelings and health statuses.
By considering the social dimension of smartcars, we can envision the next generation of automobiles as having even more autonomous capabilities instead of just being machines that passively share traffic information. As we begin to understand the different ways vehicles could communicate with each other, the range of possibilities expands and ultimately tests the limits of our comfort zone.
The Usability Gap
Once the self-driving car becomes an accessible consumer product, how long will it take before it is widely accepted as a reliable mode of transport? Do we really want self-driving cars? Isn’t the pleasure and freedom of driving oneself the main reason to own a car?
Otherwise, why don’t we hop on taxis, buses or trains more often? Owning a self-driving smartcar may mean that we no longer need to pass driving tests but we will need, in turn, to learn how to upgrade the operating system of our car.
It’s almost certain that driverless cars will have to offer the same level of flexibility and convenience as our current vehicles to convince us that they are worth our consideration. And once we have decided to acquire one, will we let our kids sit alone in this brand-new self-driving smartcar? Will it be less upsetting for the next generation who will grow up with existing smartcars?
All these questions bring us back to the flying car paradox: It’s not about building the thing itself, but more about integrating it into the daily lives of people. That’s the real challenge. The products that seamlessly find their places in our everyday lives are always adopted more rapidly. But while it’s intriguing to consider how long it will take drivers to trust autonomous driving technology, it’s equally important to consider what other systems and services will need to be transformed in order to support traveling in driverless cars.
Is the existing infrastructure of roads, parking facilities, fuel and service stations ready to accommodate self-driving cars? Will roadside assistance services be able to adapt fast enough by acquiring knowledge about sophisticated technology and software? Will taxis still be essential or will taxi companies catch on faster than the average driver and become the first owners of driverless cars? Before we are ready to remove the driver from the driver’s seat, we need to think of everything that will be lost, gained and needed to make smartcars as reliable, safe and convenient as our existing vehicles.
Nowadays, many connected objects provide humans with direct access to the information from which they can draw their own conclusions. Increasingly, these objects get bundled with services to perform more detailed analysis and deliver simple, actionable recommendations on their own. Are we ready to see our cars go down that road? The smartcar holds much promise, but it also raises many questions that need to be answered before we give it the green light.
(Photo: Sartre Project)