We know what self-driving cars look like today. We’ve seen two models so far: the Lexus SUV with a bunch of cameras and sensors on it and the Google bubble car.
But what might they look like 35 years from now? Here are some thoughts.
The obvious design changes will be removing the steering wheel, dashboard and gear shift. But those are some of the least interesting.
Cars today are designed for human drivers, safety and convenience. Over time, the first two become unnecessary and the convenience becomes dominant.
There are a number of features that are necessary for driving that can go away:
- Driver and passenger side mirrors and the rear view mirror. Nothing to see here. And getting rid of the exterior mirrors will make the cars more fuel efficient.
- Windshield wipers. The car doesn’t need these to see. (But there are other reasons to keep them — see below.)
- Windows. The car doesn’t need them, but also see below.
- Turn signals.
- Dashboard with gauges.
Some things can’t go away, not because the car or passengers need them, but for safety of others. We don’t really need headlights. But pedestrians do. However, the headlights can remain off most of the time and be turned on when there are people or animals around. This will dramatically reduce light pollution. (Lack of signals have already caused problems for humans; the blind can have a hard time with hybrid and electric vehicles because they are nearly silent.)
We’ve added a lot of safety features over the years:
- Side impact door beams
- LATCH anchors for car seats
- Crumple zones
These add substantial weight to cars.
With self-driving cars, car accidents will be incredibly rare events. The biggest safety feature will be the lack of human drivers.
Make driving safe enough and you can get rid of that weight, making cars more fuel efficient.
Sure, we’ve added radios, CD players, rear-seat DVD players and cupholders. But a self-driving cars will provide a whole new dimension of convenience.
Instead of having the typical front-facing seats, we can have different seating arrangements. Maybe a table for playing games, cards or just talking.
Recliner seats or beds for sleeping. Reading lights that dim the rest of the cabin.
Air travel is a model to look at: from the perspective of the passenger, an airplane is a self-driving transportation vehicle. We could have a big screen display for watching movies with thousands of options. Cameras for teleconferencing. Better, more immersive sound systems.
We could have the equivalent of Airshow: maps and stats on the journey.
These features could be segmented as airplanes are. Vehicles that are basic for short trips and luxury vehicles for long hauls. (Of course, you could order these on demand for a particular trip.)
There are some things that the car doesn’t need, but we might want to keep for humans. Windows and windshield wipers are two of them.
We still have windows on planes because people want to be able to look out. (Cargo planes don’t have windows because it is more fuel efficient.) Likewise, we need to provide visibility, especially on scenic roads. But we can improve these, too: windows and the windshield will have the ability to become opaque. This is better for having sex and watching movies. Or driving on an urban blight road full of billboards.
Now all of this will take a long time. The average vehicle on the road today in the United States is more than 11 years old. If we’re looking at individually owned vehicles, it would take 20 years or more to turnover the fleet. But this should be accelerated by purchase of self-driving cars by companies like Uber and Lyft for on-demand service.
The driving and convenience features are easier to change than the safety features.
Having a self-driving car on the road without a steering wheel is fine, because other vehicles don’t rely on it. We can’t get rid of turn signals because other cars need to know which way the self-driving car intends to go.
The safety features will need the longest to get rid of. If humans can cause accidents, we still need to protect the occupants of the self-driving car. This also affects the convenience features; we can’t have people standing up unbuckled if there’s a chance that the car will get hit.
Regulators and public fear will also play a role in further delaying the removal of outdated safety features.
All of these changes can’t happen fast enough for me.
Read my post on how cars have changed over the past 35 years.