The Radical Redesign of Autonomous Vehicles

Greater automation will change car interiors and exteriors and will ultimately challenge our notion of what an auto is. That’s the bold vision of car designer Dan Sturges, a mobility innovator and a consultant with Team Red US.  
Changes are already underway in steps toward a radical new definition of the automobile – a transformation in vehicle design progressing toward fully autonomous capability. For vehicles of a Level 3 semi-autonomous state, new features that automakers are currently looking at include Head Up Displays and pivot seats: both will make vehicle travel more enjoyable and productive, while still affording driver control of vehicle in some circumstances. 
The US National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s Level 3 automation is described as a capability for self-driving far higher than what is generally available today, but not self-driving all the time. This level of automation presents unique challenges to Human Factors considerations. The driver will be accustomed to focusing on other activities most of the time while driving, but under specific circumstances, he or she will, with “sufficiently comfortable transition time ”, need to steer and use the breaks and accelerator. The issue of driver re-engagement is a serious one, presenting technical and liability challenges.
In a 2014 session of the Transportation Research Board’s Symposium on Automated Driving, Human Factors experts presented research indicating the driver won’t be free to sleep during a commute because he or she would need to remain conscious enough to take back the controls from the car at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, he or she will be able to spend time in the car using the Internet, watching movies, working, reading or playing games. Signals, using sound and vibration, will alert the driver to shift focus back to driving.
Level 3 automation needs to strike a tricky balance between being appealing, comfortable and practical for the driver engaged in non-driving activities, as well as driving. How can vehicle designers meet these two requirements, each with very different goals? Given the new, part-time, role of the driver as the car’s passenger, how much can vehicle controls and interfaces change from the status quo? 
A Head-Up Display, where the front windshield doubles as a screen, might be more practical than a brought-in device or other type of embedded screen because a Head-Up Display would keep the driver in the right position for taking over controls, and looking forward. Eric Noble of the design research firm CARLAB thinks the Head-Up Displays will become more and more common, augmenting information and entertainment available to the driver, although not entirely replacing the built-in screen displays we have now, located in the center stack, or in the digital instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. Noble explains that these will remain better locations from which to convey vehicle systems data as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls.
Another key feature under development is pivot seats that turn at a slight angle to face the passenger seat. The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 Concept has seats that pivot at a 45-degree angle. In a higher level of automation, an automobile’s front seats will be able to swivel around 180 degrees in order to face the passengers in the rear seats, but this is not practical in a Level 3 scenario.
“The most critical issue is driver-re-engagement, asserts Sturges, adding, “All non-driving interior ‘re-configurability’ opportunities will be based on how easy it is for the driver to take back control of the car.”
And the mobility innovator says some situations may obviously require a longer transition than others: “I get the sense driver re-engagement takes much longer than the carmakers are comfortable with. When the computer asks you to stop working on your iPad and take over driving, but you are already going over 70 mph, how long does it take for you to get a hold of the situation? Where are you? How many cars are behind and approaching? What else do you need to know? This process may take more than 20 seconds, which is a long time from a safety standpoint!”
As automakers investigate the potential of pivot seats for Level 3 capability vehicles, Eric Noble of the CARLAB sounds a note of caution that indicates that the pivot seat is dependent on making great improvements in vehicle safety.
“If, years from now, vehicle automation makes crash impacts very rare, then the resultant, relaxed impact standards might allow pivoting seats to finally come to market,” says CARLAB President Noble. “Until then, they'll remain the stuff of show cars, where they've been standard operating procedure for decades already”.
The prospect of automation also calls into question the function of the steering wheel.  What happens to it if a driver isn’t using it the majority of the time? In a fully autonomous vehicle the driver never has to steer, it can be eliminated altogether. 
Sturges muses, “If we’re not going to steer, what are we going to do with our hands? Perhaps we will read – but not being able to put pressure with a book or a tablet on the steering wheel presents a challenge”.
According to Sturges, some automakers are researching steering wheels that are shaped differently, or that fold away in autonomous mode, but to imagine in a Level 3 vehicle, this transformation has to be somewhat limited. There are obvious safety challenges to steering wheels that move aside or fold up, so until we achieve full automation, the steering wheel has to be accessible and user-friendly. 
There are a lot of Human Factors considerations that need closer study in order for an innovation like this to get closer to market. After all, the transformation of the steering wheel may have to happen much more quickly, and more reliably, than parts of vehicles, such as mirrors and windows, that currently move. 
CARLAB’s Noble points out the need for speed when humans take back control, ““Window lifts and mirror motors are all slow, and that's acceptable. slow re-emergence of driver controls won't be”.
The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 Concept is a promising direction, featuring different types of driver engagement, with a variety of handheld and other screens. The pivot seat turns the driver into passenger. The truck’s electric powertrain, and especially with drive-by-wire systems, support much more flexible interior space. 
A whole other category of “Mobility on Demand” vehicles designed as taxis and luxury vans are already improving design for the comfort of passengers. These types of vehicles geared to riders instead of drivers provide a glimpse into the future of autonomous vehicles. The focus of the design is for passenger productivity, connectivity and entertainment. These shared vehicles could have more amenities, and even commercial services like food and coffee. 
Sturges says, “More Mobility on Demand will lead to a wide range of new business opportunities, and for the new types of vehicles consumers are using every day.”


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