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Redesigning autonomous vehicles

Will the driver’s seat and steering wheels disappear?

Autonomous vehicles are a reality. And although they are still not commercially available, they are driving themselves around our roads as you read this. They are highly sophisticated and fully independent. In fact, a level-5 autonomous vehicle prototype (the highest level [1] of driving automation conceived in the scale developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers) was recently showcased at the 2018 Mobile World Congress. The only thing keeping self-driving vehicles from imminent commercialization is the current state of our road infrastructure and our legislation.

Design Concept

The looming commercialization of self-driving vehicles raises a number of issues. One particularly interesting question concerns the design of our cars. Ask a child to draw a car. Chances are the drawing will be just like yours was when you were a child. Vehicle designs are still fundamentally based on the concept of the Ford Model-T, which was introduced in 1908.

Vehicles still feature forward-looking seats with a standard driver’s seat on the front left-side (in most countries), a steering wheel, a brake and, at times, a gear shift control. Our cars are now equipped with a number of touch and voice interfaces, automated driver-fatigue detection systems, emergency braking systemsproximity alerts and automatic parallel parking features, and yet their design concept remains virtually unchanged.

So, why are not only cars, but even autonomous prototypes, still designed on a concept that was conceived over a century ago? Why do we still have steering wheels?

To Drive or Not to Drive

Conventional wisdom often advocates public transport. It saves you the hassle of driving and allows you to kick back and ignore traffic. You can snooze, read, work, speak on the phone or watch a movie. However, this luxury will soon be available in your very own autonomous car – or in a shared car or transportation network company vehicle.

The rise of self-driving cars is set to radically alter the physical organisation of our vehicles. Just as small lounges promote socialization with the organization of seats around a coffee table, perhaps the cars of the future will allow passengers to work, eat or simply kick back. Nonetheless, there will probably still be a driver’s seat that can swivel around and be locked into a forward-looking position. In fact, cars will continue to be semi-autonomous vehicles for some time and human drivers will have the opportunity to act as co-pilots, even though this is theoretically unnecessary.

The Human Edge

Human drivers still have a small edge over autonomous driving in specific conditions (such as off-road driving, heavy fog, rain, hail and snow storms). In fact, under these weather conditions, even our most sophisticated sensor systems – such as LIDAR – experience difficulties. The LIDAR beams may bounce off of water drops or snowflakes, providing the artificial intelligence systemwith erroneous information. Arguably another edge experienced by drivers is the sheer pleasure of the driving experience itself.

Our self-driving vehicles therefore will continue to require a bare number of traditional features. And, although level-5 autonomous vehicles require no human interfaces, our self-driving cars still present a number of features that allow humans differing levels of active engagement.

Car Steering

Vehicle automation experts posit that the first tool to go will be the steering wheel. Over the years, we have progressed from manual steering to power steering and more recently to drive-by-wire, a system in which the mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the transmission system has been replaced by a digital control system. However, as driving is taken over by a fully computerised system, manual car steering may well be performed by a better-suited device. For instance, the joystick or some type of smart touch system that provides haptic feedback to the user.

Semiautonomous driving basically means that manual controls will be transmitted as commands to the vehicle’s artificial intelligence system. Firstly, it will analyse the request, then calculate its feasibility in the context of all the other information coming from multiple sensors and subsystems, and then it will either reject it or place it in a queue of code to be executed – all in real-time. Rather than driving, we will be providing further feedback from our own experience to a fully autonomous system powered by artificial intelligence.

Indeed, in his book, The Design of Future Things, Donald Norman, Director of The Design Lab at the University of California San Diego, explains that “driving an automated car is very much like riding a horse. You can ride a horse with tight reins or loose reins. Loose reins mean the horse is in control, but, even when you’re in control, the horse is still doing the low-level guidance, stepping safely to avoid holes and obstacles.” The horse knows how to reach its destination.

[1] Level 5 – Full Automation: At this level, no human control of the vehicle is necessary. This means that the vehicles are fully autonomous and do not require any pedals, steering wheels, or other mechanical control interfaces for human drivers.

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