Radicals are bit players in car of the future

2030 is not that far away in car-platform years. Some experts say the 2030 model year vehicles are already on some designers’ drawing boards. The biggest influences dictating design, both inside and outside of the vehicle, will be answers or at least views on a few key questions yet to be determined – the levels of vehicle autonomy and private ownership.

“Depending on how you answer the questions, you design (vehicles) differently,” asserts Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego. To that end, Norman says it’s important to “distinguish between autonomous and driverless”.  He sees the evolution of automation changing interiors and offering new user experiences but isn’t convinced we’ll reach the end of the road to full autonomous driving by 2030. “Marketing and sales executives think it’s happening in the next few years. Engineers think 10 or more years and people like me doing social science research – what’s required, interaction – I think it’s more like 20 years,” the professor adds.

But in the next 13 years, Norman, author of “The Design of Future Things,” sees some vehicles that are driverless, with no steering wheel and no need for humans to take over but restricted as to where they can go. He says they will be operating in factories, delivering parts and hauling freight on the highways, as well as used in mining and agricultural settings.

Interior moves

Norman sees the car of the future looking more like SUVs or vans, where people can face each other and be more productive. He notes a change to fuel cells or electric vehicles on “skateboard platforms” will create more space for social interiors that will offer chameleon-like options. “Carmakers will experiment with a wide variety of interiors allowing people to do their normal activities in a relaxed, normal state,” predicts the professor. “Some may have flexible interiors to change from a business environment during the weekday to a hiking environment on the weekend.”

For local transportation, Norman says it wouldn’t have to be very aerodynamic. “The car of 2030, if it’s not a fleet car and you still own it, the custom-ability will be a huge factor,” says Richard Baverstock, CEO and founder of predictive vehicle guidance firm Mogol. He adds, “There will be components, taking the computer concept to the car, you can unplug and upgrade your car in the same way.”

Yet some of these changes may stay on the drawing board until fully autonomous driving, Level 5, is achieved. Even then, it’s unclear how the transition will be handled while some cars self-drive and others have different levels of automation. After all, cars routinely last for decades and state lawmakers can be slow to act on legislating new technology.

Shapes of things

Advances in autonomous driving, whether fully achieved or not, and embedded camera technology may affect car exteriors no matter who owns the car or whether a person is driving.

Eric Noble, president of Carlab, which works with the likes of Audi, Samsung, Subaru, and Continental, among others says some windows, side mirrors, and even rearview mirrors will disappear unless regulation prevents the changes. With less need to see blind spots and out of windows to navigate, that frees up designers to change body shapes that have been beholden to vision angles. Designers assert that with less need to see outside for safety, aerodynamic enhancements can be made for the first time in two decades. “Since the driver doesn’t need to see out the window for driving purposes, you can change shape of car to make it more aerodynamically smooth,” notes Norman.

However, don’t look for these changes in the showroom, or even on the drawing boards, just yet. Noble says carmakers aren’t ready to break out of the mould: “When we talk to carmakers about reducing window glass they intellectually get it but neither car design studios or car manufacturers are ready to go there yet.”

The designer adds we shouldn’t look anytime soon for the on-board lounge setup that Mercedes has displayed in its F 015: “Lounge-style seating is intriguing but to do it effectively and create that feel you have to have limo-like space. I think that’s highly unlikely at 2030, that’s such a vast change. Cars for 2022 are on the drawing boards right now and in most ways, they’re mostly conventional.”

Outside in

Once Level 5 is achieved and some cars are being driven autonomously or close to it, designers see eventual greater gains for modifying a vehicle’s aerodynamics on the go. It has already begun at the top end of the market and by 2030, some of the ideas that Porsche and others have introduced will be mainstream.

“Active aerodynamics is already a huge trend and we can expect that to really be employed in very noticeable ways by 2030. Think about vehicles where we don’t have small devices that pop up or widen or open and close but parts of vehicles that can change shape,” predicts Noble.

He forecasts foldable aerodynamic devices that can turn trucks rolling down the highway into ‘Kamm tails’ to cut down drag or vehicles with a rear roofline that lifts at the back with fenders that pop out, too.

Getting there is half the fun

We may not have to wait a baker’s dozen years to see these shape-shifting mobiles that Batman would envy. “We’ll start to see it in the 2020s and movable aero will be perfected by 2030,” according to Noble. “As humans we’re also peacocks. The Porsche owner driving around town at 15mph with the rear spoiler deployed is doing it because he likes the way it looks. If it looks cool, the owner will have the option.” Oh, and he definitely calls for tinted windows on the fly: “We’ll see glass that electro-chromatically blacks out the glass that lets me focus on my devices.”

Speaking of devices, on-board 5G or better connectivity services should make those devices hum as sweetly as the engine. There will most likely be telematics services connecting the vehicle with dealers for safety and warranty information, UBI for insurance, and other entities for emissions, registration and compliance reasons.

Norman also sees the vehicle knowing your itinerary complete with suggested stops for charging its battery and yours at restaurants. “Much higher bandwidth will make a real difference. You can continue social nets, localisation services, more screens inside the car, more advice and more ads: you’re passing X store and there’s a sale on just for you. We have shirts in your size and favourite colour.”

This customised, relaxing ride may also boost the number of longer trips on highways. Norman predicts: “If driving can be autonomous and I don’t stare at the road and can be doing work in a comfortable environment and take along my family or my two or three business associates, they’ll do that. That will also affect how we design cars, I suspect there will be more medium distance driving (up to four hours).”

Despite the increased number of these trips, Norman says there will be fewer traffic jams since more “intelligent” cars will bunch and platoon on the roadways and there could be fewer cars depending on the uptake of car-sharing services.

Noble isn’t convinced the car’s connectivity will be any better than services connecting the devices he brings on board but he is excited about widespread adoption of intelligent, conversation-enhancing sound systems: “The sound system noise cancels and with AI, imagine it lowers the input to my son as I ask him a question by name and amplifies my voice. We can focus more on our experience inside the car than on driving it. In the Jetsons’ car, George Jetson wanted to talk to Judy and the vehicle facilitated that while the others didn’t have to hear it. That’s doable now and by 2030 we’ll for sure see this.”


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