As self-driving cars continue to advance and are beginning to appear on roadways for testing, people are starting to come around to the fact that driverless vehicles will soon be a reality. While at first it might seem scary to cede control to a machine, there’s an argument to be made that automated vehicles will perform more consistently than human-driven ones. Every time I bike or drive through Boston traffic, the single scariest aspect I encounter is road-rage, and I’d happily nominate this city’s drivers to turn over the controls to an emotionless computer and object-detecting sensors. Still, the future of self-driving vehicles is difficult to imagine, especially when it comes to its implications, which is why international design firm IDEO recently published a study called “The Future of Automobility,” which combines research and speculation about the future of automated transportation.
IDEO offers three different visions with regards to the future of transit: driverless vehicles, delivery service, and workspaces. The team tried to “take into account business, technology and disability lenses as [they] spot patterns that indicate how things may play out in the future.” One of the points the team makes is that in the future, people may not simply own vehicles—they might instead own access to vehicles. That possibility makes a lot of sense in conjunction with the rise of companies such as Zip Car and Uber. Services that deliver both people and goods will be greatly enhanced. Instead of calling and waiting for a vehicle, they’ll be equipped with software that allows them to process information from texts and calendars to anticipate where customers will be and when. Users will be able to plan everything from a pick-up time and location to the music for the ride.
During the ride, the road will likely be full of other driverless cars that drive in a “platoon,” or a synchronized line. This isn’t like the high-speed wolf pack of rushed drivers you find on a highway—instead, since the cars can use sensors to coordinate, they’ll speed up and slow down in unison, enhancing safety and conserving fuel. You might wonder how other drivers will be able to discern self-driving cars from human-driven ones. IDEO envisions colored lights emitted from the self-driving cars to indicate their status and their link with similar vehicles.
Personal vehicles aren’t the only ones expected to get automated upgrades, as delivery vehicles would too. IDEO imagines what they call “Cody,” a “21st-century mule” or an “anthropomorphized self-driving delivery truck,” which will use similar signals to interact with other vehicles on the road. Enhanced with artificial intelligence, these vehicles will eliminate the annoying multi-hour delivery windows and offer real time, minute-by-minute delivery estimates. Cody is see-through, and has a surface backed by a vacuum to keep packages in place. Software will allow customers to arrange drop-off times and locations, a scanner will confirm the identity of the recipient, and a robotic arm would retrieve the right package and deliver it. Without a potentially sleepy or overworked driver, the vehicle could drive during off-peak times and calculate optimal travel routes, which is a time and fuel saver.
When it comes to work spaces, IDEO imagines self-driving vehicles as travelling office and work spaces. They envision a concept called “WorkOnWeels,” which are modular offices that hook together like train cars. The offices can be situated anywhere with space—beachfronts, parking lots, parks—rather than be limited to tight urban areas. I have to admit, the idea of having my office come to me instead of me commuting to it holds a lot of appeal. Although thus far, IDEO hasn’t come up with a way to ensure that people are actually productive in their offices. Hopefully that innovation comes soon.