Currently, most of the attention on autonomous vehicles is focused on the technology that lets cars drive themselves. However, in the near future, the industry will need to broaden its focus to include what is arguably just as important: the passenger. At Intel, we've been working on technology platforms that will allow cars to actually drive themselves for some time. More recently, our UX team has turned to designing, prototyping, and testing a number of experiences for how passengers will operate autonomous vehicles, how passengers will feel safe and confident during a trip, and how these automated systems will communicate clearly, so passengers will understand what an autonomous vehicle is doing, and why.
Much of this work has led us to spend quite a bit of time inside vehicles—incorporating new technologies and new interactions to understand what should be optimized on our platforms—and in this process, we've started thinking about the ways in which the physical interiors of autonomous vehicles may need to change. So I'd like to share a few initial thoughts as we begin to form hypotheses about what will be important in these new physical interiors.
One aspect of car ownership we often take for granted is the relationship between driver and passenger. With the exception of picking up a hitchhiker, a driver knows his or her passengers—family members, friends, co-workers, acquaintances—and because of this, there's a familiarity that lets people share such a small space. And even with taxis and ride hailing services, a front seat/back seat separation exists between driver and passengers, where passengers who share a ride almost always know each other. However, with ride hailing services introducing reduced-rate "pool" options, strangers are now riding in the backs of cars together. And with driverless "mobility-on-demand" services likely to be one of the first ways autonomous vehicles enter the market, we will likely see an increase in the number of passengers who don't know each other, sharing rides regularly in vehicles without a driver.
Of course, most people have experience sharing rides with strangers. Buses, subways, airplanes, and trains are just some of the ways we travel together. But although we're often shoulder-to-shoulder, the relatively large interiors, and larger number of people traveling together, make it easy for us to assume a certain degree of anonymity. It's easier for us to keep to ourselves in the midst of the crowd. But with autonomous vehicles, the interiors are much smaller and hold far fewer people. It's the closeness of the space—the intimacy— that will be a significant challenge for designers. These interior environments will need to address a number of competing needs. How will they accommodate groups of strangers, and also groups who know each other? How will they provide space for being social and for keeping to oneself? How will they create experiences that promote sharing while also safeguarding individual privacy? And all of these situations will undoubtedly be heightened with no human driver to help set context or mediate interactions.
So, the intimate nature of autonomous vehicles will most likely lead to a significant rethinking of vehicle interiors, prompting car companies to innovate in a variety of ways. But when it comes to designing how people will share these close spaces with each other, we've identified three general challenges that seem particularly important for designers to tackle first:
· Being together & being apart.
From one ride to the next, we see an ever-shifting need to be social or private. Some people will want to sit side-by-side, others across from each other, still others will want to sit in a small circle to share or socialize—all while other passengers may want their own more private, personal spaces. All of this means that seating will have to become much more changeable, flexible, and adaptable. How might seats be combined or separated? Can they be brought out or stowed away, to create more or less space? In what ways could seats be reconfigured into individual or shared seating?
· New ways to create privacy.
In such intimate spaces, the pressure to have some sort of social interaction with other passengers, even a brief hello, may be substantial. In some contexts, passengers will want to engage, but in others they may want to keep to themselves. Currently, people use headphones or stay heads-down in a book to signal that they are "unavailable" for conversation, but physical aspects of the interior might also be designed to help create discrete spaces. How might partitioning be incorporated into the environment? Could lighting be used to signal a need for privacy? What interior layouts will let passengers use their mobile devices without someone looking over their shoulder?
· The ebb and flow of our devices.
If one of the main value propositions for autonomous vehicles is to free up driving time for other activities, then passengers will likely use their mobile devices for chatting, texting, watching content, or being productive. This means that vehicle interiors must account for the various needs we have with our mobile devices. What physical areas (device "cup holders"?) will enable us to charge, view, and use our devices hands-free? How will the space accommodate the bags, cases, power cords, stands, headphones, and other peripherals we bring with our devices? And how will the space make it easy for us to remember our devices, so we don't leave them behind at the end of a trip?
Again, these three challenges look at the interiors of autonomous vehicles as shared environments, much like taxis or ride-hailing vehicles, where passengers may or may not know each other. Many in the industry believe that autonomous vehicles will first hit the market as fleets of "robot-taxis". This is likely because the value propositions of autonomous vehicles seem familiar and well-aligned with the current "anytime, anywhere" promise of ride-hailing services. For personally-owned autonomous vehicles, other interior design needs will arise, and many aspects of the above challenges may not apply at all.
It will be interesting to see all of the ways these interiors will come to be, as the industry marches on and autonomous vehicles become a reality. In a few short years, we might take a ride, if we're confident they are safe and trustworthy. And we might continue riding in them, if the interiors are designed with our needs, comfort, and privacy in mind.
Further Reading: IDEO's take on passenger experience and shared transportation environments.
Matt Yurdana is a Creative Director in the Internet of Things Experiences Group at Intel, focused on researching and designing highly and fully autonomous vehicle experiences. He and the team design, prototype, and test new interactions for what it will be like use, and live in a world that has, autonomous vehicles.