car of the future

On one of the recent 4-hour-trips I make weekly from Strasbourg to Brussels and back I thought to myself: “wouldn’t it be great if I could use these 4 hours constructively, and not just have to drive all the time?”

Now, this led me to think that:

A. I’m sure many others like me who have long commutes would be happier spending this time working, reading, eating, sleeping, watching TV, or any other activity you can think of.

B. The technology to allow automatic control of cars – i.e. ultimately allow them to drive themselves (with manual override, of course) has existed for decades (cruise control), and more advanced generations (based on radar/IR/GPS etc.) are already beginning to enter the market, admittedly in simple form. In a few years these will naturally come into their own, starting with safety aspects of driving but then moving on to allowing drivers to more and more let the car handle the driving and free up more time for other stuff.

Sound something like the Jetsons, or some sci-fi? Well, despite the fact that rigorous safety testing will have to be performed and manual control will always remain an option, the lure of freeing several more hours a week for work or leisure activities will be so great as to compel auto makers to include these features in their top models first, and then filter them in to the massive selling models as well. The economic benefit of freeing millions of commuting hours to work (if one so chooses to do so) will also drive this. Not having to contend with stop-start traffic jams and just relaxing will lure people to use this, and the ability to feed advertising to people during these hours (and not just via radio) can further increase it’s appeal. And if one wants to enjoy driving, one can always take control and drive the old-fashioned way.

Now, the Top-Gear brigade will of course complain that cars were meant to be driven by us humans, that it’s fun and that by taking control from the person and giving it to some sensor-laden computer you’re ripping the heart and soul from these automobiles, to which I’d say: true, you’re right. However, giving the option to drivers to switch to auto-pilot and do something much more (or much less) productive is one of the main points of technology. Auto-pilot itself is used frequently to allow airline pilots to sleep/booze up/ take a vacation in Wisconsin, all the while people can still enjoy piloting. If you’re a petrolhead, go ahead and switch it off.

It seems that most concepts and discussions regarding cars in the future focus either on cool radical designs or on the energy source. The question is, will the actual role which the car plays in our life not change? What will cars turn into, once they are fully capable of driving themselves? If you could do anything in your car while on the road, what would you do?  Eating, sleeping, watching TV, Internet, talking to people (fully concentrated), and many other activities are the potential beneficiaries of this suddenly free time. In effect, the car will become an extension of the home. This will radically change the interior design of cars, with space utilization for  activities other than driving becoming a prominent factor, replacing the current guiding principle of a well-designed driver’s environment and comfortable sitting positions for him/her and several passengers.

future car

Entertainment units (large screen TVs, onboard PCs (or macs), games console etc.), minibar, seats which collapse into beds, perhaps even basic cooking facilities seem reasonable, bringing what is available in chauffeur-driven cars and mobile homes into your everyday car. Or is there anything else you would think could be done in a car instead of driving?

EDIT: an interesting story regarding this topic can be read here, claiming that the first models of self-driving cars could be on the road within a decade!