Carmakers have always designed vehicles for individual drivers and families, not groups of strangers. That could pose a problem going forward. In fact, it already has. Look at the tensions that arose when services like Uber transformed personal rides into public transport. (Lack of privacy, for starters, driver mix-ups for another.) The advent of self-driving cars—vehicles for which codified user interfaces and social norms have yet to emerge—will only complicate matters further. As ride-sharing becomes more popular and autonomous vehicles more capable, one thing becomes clear: Society needs a new kind of car.
A new project from acclaimed design firm Ideo presents one of the most compelling visions to date of an autonomous, ride-sharing future. It places the car at the center of a new marketplace, one where owners of an autonomous vehicle can toggle between ride sharing, car sharing, and private use. Drivers can choose to ride solo or offset the cost of their car by picking up passengers or renting it to others. The passengers, too, can reduce the price of their trips by agreeing to run errands for the owner.
Ideo’s concept envisions what happens when private vehicles become a public resource. “We’re encouraging car manufacturers to start thinking about this notion of designed interiors that facilitate really seamless sharing,” says Danny Stillion, a partner at Ideo, who leads the Future of Automobility project.
The futuristic minivan is a glassy four-seater designed to shuttle multiple passengers who may or may not know each other. Riders can book a seat in advance and set it to social or private mode. Privacy mode activates noise cancellation technology, while social mode triggers acoustic enhancements that makes it easier to hear your fellow passengers. Each seat functions as a discrete environment. “Right now by default it’s a shared experience,” Stillion says. “We think vehicle manufacturers will rise to the occasion and provide some choice.”
Looking beyond privacy, Ideo imagined ways to make the riding experience as seamless as possible. It designed the doors to open and close automatically, to ease entry and exit. Lighting beneath each seat ensures riders don’t forget their belongings when they leave. A screen on the front of the car can display passenger information during pickup, to make finding an unfamiliar car less of a hassle.
We can imagine a world in a not-too-distant future where transportation becomes a utility. Daniela Rus
Some aspects of Ideo’s concept are already a reality, or will be soon. Uber and Lyft transformed carpooling into a business model. Volvo is experimenting with using car trunks as delivery drop-off points. Last July, Elon Musk shared his grand plan for a shared fleet that would allow Tesla owners to make money off their cars when they’re not driving themselves. And there’s no shortage of startups that let you rent a total stranger’s car for a couple hours. “We can imagine a world in a not-too-distant future where transportation becomes a utility,” says Daniela Rus, a researcher at MIT who studies ride-sharing.
But ride-sharing won’t eclipse individual ownership anytime soon. That’s why studios like Ideo are imagining systems that cater to both realities. It’s reasonable to assume that design details the company describes in its project—seats that function like individual pods, storage compartments in the front and rear of the vehicle, visors that transform into projection screens—are in line with suggestions Ideo is making to clients like Ford and Lincoln. “One of the things that is going on in general in the automotive community is a new focus on the in-vehicle experience,” says Wendy Ju, executive director of interaction design research at Stanford. “This is being driven on one front from concern about Google and Apple entering the automobile space, and on another from concerns over new mobility models from Zipcar, Lyft or Uber.”
Ideo’s concept is an idealistic vision of that future, but it’s one Stillion believes is rooted in possibility. “You may not see this happen overnight, but you’ll definitely see gradual progression toward some of the things we’re provoking,” he says.
Ultimately, Ideo’s concept is just that—a provocation. It’s hard to look at it and not wonder what happens to public transportation as it becomes easier and cheaper to ride in someone else’s car. How do you handle insurance when the average person becomes a professional driver? Will new forms of mobility change the way our cities, buildings, and parking lots are designed? Ideo’s concepts don’t solve these problems, but they present a framework that car manufacturers, policy makers, drivers, and riders can use to answer them.