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A design approach for autonomous cars

by Ashwin Rajan

In 2011, I worked on a project for Volvo at Fjord around reimagining the 'Connected Car' experience. Back then, inspired by the smartphone parading, we like others visualised cars as evolving into platforms for apps. Basically, cars would provide consoles for drivers to personalise experiences by leveraging high bandwidth internet connectivity with the benefits of extended mobility. This was based on the widespread behaviour of drivers owning their cars and using them for mobility not just within cities, but across states and even nations. I'd say it was a good vision of how the Connected Car has evolved since then; the car has gained ground in its ongoing negotiation with the smartphone to host the apps that matter to drivers (like navigation), as well as to to passengers (like entertainment) and to driving experiences in general (like smart windshields). I'm happy that my past client Volvo are today in the leading edge of in this space, as this recent development shows.

What's changed

One key element about the Connected Car has changed radically since 2011: the increasing disconnectedness of the driver from the automobile. Building on the smartphone paradigm and user-centeredness values, everyone imagined the driver to remain in the driving seat of the experience, until very recently. It wasn't a wrong notion and is still relevant for much of the car industry, but the interesting thing about the future is that discontinuities tend to come along.

Two unique forces of discontinuity are powering the transformation underway in the connected car space. The first is technological: the development of self-driving technology by the likes of companies such as Google. But while exponential technology is a powerful source of innovation, a new technology also needs an associated behavioural shift to gain market acceptance and adoption. The second force of discontinuity is therefore behavioural in nature, and it is the shift in automobile ownership patterns made possible by the likes of companies such as Uber. As a result to these two forces converging, there are now dozens of companies working globally to deliver services in various combinations of automated vehicles, including hailing, sharing, group and public transportation.

Uber and other car hailing companies are a cornerstone of this technosocial shift as they are shifting not only mutual trust between connected strangers, but more importantly for the connected car, they nudge drivers to reduce or give up control altogether of the driving experience. When you hail an Uber, or a Lyft or any other ride hailing service, you essentially give up control over the personalisation of the experience and instead choose convenience and effectiveness. Personalisation and customisation are controlling impulses; they are strongly related to ownership and the relationship of the user to herself. User who personalise are acting on the belief that they trust their own decisions over that of others, and prefer their choices over that of others. As a result, personalisation is a move away from social or group interaction and experience. It is no wonder that driver-centered cultures such as the US have cars with just one person in it (the driver) dominating rush hour.

At the core of the market shift to autonomous vehicles is the behavioural shift from driving experiences to social experiences.  

The move away from ownership and towards sharing may seem like a trivial one, but involves multiple micro-decisions on the part of the user. For instance, it affects what and how much a person chooses to carry; car owners typically have stuff they use regularly lying around almost permanently in their cars, such as sporting equipment. Ride hailing, which is closely associated to sharing, changes that element completely. The user needs to rethink what and how much they carry, when they leave and even what music they might hear during their ride.

As a result, driving experiences become social experiences. And social in this sense is not just about an experienced shared in the 'social media' sense, but as an experience which is influenced by the decisions of others and external factors a lot more. As the connected cars become more integrated into an extended infrastructure of the street, shopping and residential areas, markets, schools, entertainment, sports and more, they will start to be designed more from the outside in.

Cars were traditionally designed from the inside out, with the driver at the centre of the experience. With autonomy, cars will be increasingly designed from the outside in.

Even with the driver still in the equation, we can see value proportions to drivers shifting quickly as new basis of driving and opportunities for sharing arise, as seen in this from the very popular Grab from Singapore below.

Of course, transformation does not happen overnight, we are now in a period of transition during which the controls and experiences of the driver with be negotiated and traded off against the opportunities presented by a rapidly connecting world. This negotiation will happen via products, services, brands. policy, technologies and a host of other factors. We can expect to see a number of inflection points and players of very new types entering this space.

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