A Driverless Future: Implications Of The Connected Car

Hypotheticals are posts where we explore the implications of certain emerging trends or ideas by imagining scenarios where they play out to their fullest extent. More imagination than reality, they act as “what if” stories yet to be realized.

The Evolution of The Driver

“The driver slowly vanished, her body evolving into mechanical and electrical devices. Her hands were replaced by high precision steering mechanisms, her feet by networked cruise control. Her eyes were replaced by sensing actuators, such as GPS chips, proximity sensors, local mesh networks, or video cameras. All that was left was to replace her brain.” - Tim Maly ‘Driving Blind’ 


This year Google reached 300,000 miles of automated-driving testing, and promises to deliver autonomous cars for all within 5 years. Nevada, Florida, and notably California (the state with the most cars) passed laws permitting autonomous driving and have already issued permits to driverless cars. 90% of the over 33,000 traffic deaths recorded in 2010 were due to human error, and with the only accidents occurring during Google’s testing caused by human error, the life-saving possibilities alone are making the rapid adoption of this technology alluring. Legislation is being proposed in states across the country, and the Obama administration is about to launch its own initiative to determine the safety and reliability of automated driving, realizing the needs to fundamentally rethink the way we evaluate auto-safety. With a J.D. Power and Associates study showing that 1/3 drivers would buy an autonomous car, it seems the market is already primed for this automotive singularity. At this point, more than ever, leisure and comfort innovations will begin to take precedence.

But what does this all mean for the consumer? This has far sweeping implications, but not the least of these a reshaping of the concept of ‘the driver’.

The car’s great contribution is mobility, yet its current use requires constant attention from the driver. Product integration as a result has involved passive solutions for drivers, or has focused on passengers alone. Additionally, the automobile has traditionally been something of a laggard in the adoption of modern tech for the sake of purchase value. Yet as automation becomes more integrated, the driver’s attention becomes liberated. Free from the demands of driving, drivers will become passengers themselves, something closer to a navigator than a pilot.


The vehicles of the coming decades may no longer be a car as we know it (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicts self-driving vehicles will make up 75 percent of the traffic stream by 2040). With the current and ongoing integration of so many infotainment products, by the time this driverless shift occurs, the vehicle itself will have already become something of a multi-functional space. The adoption of tech unrelated to driving will shift from a want to a need based on how people will spend their time in the car.

The modern car has arisen from the convergence of functionality and comfort (power steering, cruise control, climate control, SAS brakes, radio, satellite radio etc.), creating a certain degree of standardization. This is how cars have developed, but those needs won’t necessarily be the relevant needs of the future. With the rise of autonomous vehicles, we will begin to notice the divergence of these two principles, as driverless products based on comfort alone will become entirely different than those produced for the functionality of driving itself. This transition will be an interesting one, since it will be the first time consumers will witness such a drastic split in products and communications within the automobile industry since the SUV. As driverless cars become prevalent, the act of driving will transition from a necessary skill to a hobby. On one side you'll have early adopters who'll enjoy the freedom of a self-driven car and the unique experience that will produce. On the other hand you'll have traditionalists and enthusiasts, sticking to a driven car in the way some music puritans stick to vinyl. 

As companies explore different product directions, the vehicles of tomorrow could show a variation markedly increased from the still relatively formulaic traditions of today. One can imagine sleek road-gripping/body-molded designs for the driving enthusiasts; or modular rooms for the commuting suburban household that roll away from the home and drop family members at their destinations.

The Emergence of Lifestyle Efficiency in Vehicle Design

In this coming era, products and services, rather than existing as binary solutions between private (motorcycle) and communal (bus), personal (ZipCar) and professional (Über), there will also emerge a variety of offerings based across accessibility and social needs. 

Screen Shot 2012-11-26 at 3.54.10 PM
Screen Shot 2012-11-26 at 3.54.10 PM

For example, meal-times may become synonymous with driving: rather than having a family breakfast, and then dropping the kids off, families could enjoy communal meals whilst they are commuting. The vehicle may in fact exist as an attachment to the home, as if the garage grew wheels and drove away. After dropping everyone off the vehicle could return home, or possibly be shared amongst friends and family. Only to return hours later to pick the family up for a moon-lit dinner along coastal country roads. 


Indeed since driving is no longer a chore, and the vehicle could be a space not dissimilar to a living room, we might see further reaching changes. Could we see longer feasible commute times? Would the Connected Car increase the distance between the rural areas people choose to live and the urban center they have to work and study in? Will transit behavior mimic household behavior beyond breakfast or make-up in the car?

The shifting consumer requirements during travel will begin to dictate the development of these new automobiles. Family-use vehicles could see shared media and planning. Businesses may apply work functionalities, creating something akin to a mobile conference room that picks up and drops off employees. Similarly for education, where a ‘school bus’ morphs into something like an after-school care space or a home room. 

The Adoption Question

The main reason why we aren’t seeing driverless cars all over the road already is in part a cost issue (estimated market price of $3k for the additional tech), but mainly one of driver mindset. “There is no technology barrier from going where we are now to the autonomous car,” says Jim McBride of Ford Research and Innovation. “There are affordability issues, but the big barrier to overcome is customer acceptance.” Gradual introduction is already at play though as automakers are offering autonomous driving functions in some vehicles: GM is bringing collision mitigating breaking systems into non-luxury vehicles, Ford Motor Co. is pushing its park assist option, BMW positions its “active” cruise control system as ‘self-driving’, and Volvo reports its low-speed collision avoidance system has led to fewer accidents. The auto industry has already developed all the technology necessary to create truly autonomous vehicles.

With convincing proof points able to minimize consumers adoptions barriers, and a slew of innovations bringing new autonomous concepts to life, the roads of tomorrow may host a veritable carnival of varied vehicles. But what’s interesting is who the car owner of the tomorrow may be. Even though the J.D. Power report found that male drivers between the ages of 18 and 37 and people who live in urban areas were the most interested in fully autonomous driving, it is still drivers themselves that are most reluctant to give up the act of driving. Instead let’s look at the fact that fewer young Americans are getting driver licenses, a trend that is also true in Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Germany. Rather than a product for existing drivers, maybe the autonomous car of tomorrow is a solution to capture what is a growing consumer segment currently lost to the automobile industry— a generation “not driven to drive”. 

Some food for thought:

  1. You won’t need a license to own and use a car
  2. Manual driving could become forbidden in certain areas
  3. Foreseeable rise in ride-share solutions for closely entwined communities
  4. Street food, or ‘mobile cuisine’, may reinvent itself
  5.  Anything you can put wheels on can become an autonomous vehicle—cars, bikes, maybe even strollers .