Among the many changes autonomous vehicles will usher in, a radical new car design will most certainly be one. Already we are seeing concepts from automakers and industry experts that bear little resemblance to cars of the past century and that wouldn’t look terribly out of place in a sci-fi thriller. There are three innovations driving these designs: autonomous driving technology, transportation-as-a-service (TaaS), and electric powertrains. None of these innovations are occurring independent of the others, but each one will have a distinct impact on car design.
Despite aesthetic changes and advances in material and engine technology, I would argue that car designs have really only changed at the margins over the past century. The core components of the car have remained the same. Consider the following list of features that are common to most if not all vehicles:
- a steering wheel, shifter, dashboard and break and accelerator pedal
- rear-view and side-view mirrors
- forward facing passenger seats
- headlights, brake lights and turn signals
- cargo storage
- child restraint systems
- a compartment at the front of each vehicle for an internal combustion engine
Even the size and styles of cars are relatively standardized. Over 75% of vehicle sales in 2017 were sedans, cross-overs or mid to small sized SUVs, each of which are designed to carry 4 to 5 people, including the driver. Importantly, each of these vehicles are designed to serve a wide variety of functions efficiently. They can handle everything from the solo commute to the family vacation without breaking the bank. The only highly selling vehicle that doesn’t fit this mold is the pick-up truck.
It is quite possible that every single one of these features, including the standardized vehicle, will become relics of the past in the years to come. This won’t happen overnight, of course. Some changes will happen sooner and some will happen later. But the trends of vehicle autonomy, TaaS and electric vehicles are triggering a fundamental reconsideration of what a vehicle needs to do and what a vehicle can be.
Vehicles are standardized because most people want them to serve a wide variety of functions. Rather than buy several vehicles that each serve one function really well, we tend to buy one or two vehicles that meet all of our needs. These cars don’t serve every function with equal efficiency, but we accept that because it is better than buying more vehicles. The key here is that we are buying these vehicles. If we shift predominantly to a TaaS system (as many have predicted), our calculus changes. We can order the car that is specially designed to meet the needs of the trip at hand. Most trips, after all, involve one person traveling to and from work. And most cars with their five seats and cargo space are over-designed for that trip. Google’s Firefly, Chevrolet’s EN-V and MIT’s Hiriko (previously the CityCar), can meet most commute needs far more efficiently and affordably.
But TaaS companies would not just have pod-like cars, they would have a spectrum of cars designed to meet the spectrum of needs. Professor David Levision, a thought-leader in autonomous vehicles, has posited a “Cambrian explosion of vehicle forms designed for specific jobs.”
Importantly, the TaaS impacts described above would not be possible without autonomous vehicles, and autonomous vehicles will trigger a number of other changes to vehicle design. Going back to the list of common vehicles features: steering wheels, shifters, dashboards, break and accelerator pedals, and mirrors all exist to help a person operate the vehicle. All of that becomes obsolete with driverless cars. Similarly, rear-facing seats will become far more common when there is no longer a driver that needs to face the road.
Headlights, brake lights and turn signals are all designed to communicate to adjacent vehicles. As vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems become ubiquitous, these lights become unnecessary.
Cargo storage won’t vanish like other features, but most cars won’t need nearly as much as is common today.
Seat-belts and child restraint systems are driven by the hazards of driving, which are almost exclusively caused by people. When people are no longer behind the wheel, these safety systems may not be necessary.
Finally, internal combustion engines consume a lot of space in our cars. Electric vehicle batteries and motors use far less. Tesla opted to keep the extra space and use is for more storage. Others have opted for more compact, snub nosed designs like the Firefly, EN-V and CityCar.
While it is helpful to consider how car design will change from the perspective of those car elements that will become obsolete, it misses the exciting (and occasionally terrifying) prospect of what cars may yet be. While cars today serve a wide array of functions, the functions they can serve when they don’t require a driver is far broader. Think of cars with beds (and maybe showers) for overnight trips. Or cars with media centers for vacations. Or cars with work stations for business trips. The options are endless.
What’s more, the relative simplicity of electric vehicle technology is lowering the barriers to entry into the car market. We are seeing new startup car companies every year. Presumably, these companies will find new niches to serve in the new transportation market. The forces that led to the standardized car and the winnowing of the automotive market are set to reverse themselves.
The potentially scary aspect of these shifts is that the more enjoyable and efficient driving becomes the more people will drive, which would only exacerbate the already deleterious environmental and social impacts of our transportation system.
Either way, the car you are driving today is unlikely to look anything like the car you ride in the not-to-distant future. Autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles and TaaS companies will make sure of that.