The Other Side of Driverless Cars

Driverless or Autonomous cars are the future of transportation and the future is closer than you may think. It may take a couple more years to perfect the technology but few people doubt that autonomous cars will be a reality in the near future.

A driverless car is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input. They achieve this with the help of radar, lidar, GPS and computer vision. Advanced control systems interpret sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths, as well as obstacles and relevant signs.

Geneva Motor Show

Most autonomous cars are rough, experimental versions of current models, with all sorts of added sensor hardware. However, the recent Geneva Motor Show has showcased several futuristic design studies that took a look into the car cabin of the future.

The Swiss automotive think tank Rinspeed has offered one possible version of the future in autonomous vehicles with its Xchange concept car, which premiered at Geneva.

“I wanted to put the passenger at the center of what is possible, not the autonomous driving technology,” says Rinspeed’s founder and chief executive Frank Rinderknecht. “Travelling in a driverless car will no longer require me to stare at the road, but will let me spend my time in a more meaningful way.”

“The question then arises, would I like to work, to sleep, to read, to do whatever activities you might do on a train, or a plane? I wanted to start thinking about how autonomous cars would ‘move’ people, and not just in the literal sense,” Rinderknecht said.

Rinspeed has taken a four-seater saloon and reconfigured the interior into something that would not look out of place inside a small private jet, except its actually in a standard-sized electric Tesla Model S.

“It would have been easier in a van or stretch limousine, obviously,” said Rinderknecht. The seats were made to swivel, tilt and slide into 20 different positions, enabling passengers in the front to turn and face those in the back or lie back and watch a 32-inch screen.

Enjoy the Ride

The steering column can be moved to the center of the vehicle for better access to an information and entertainment system running the full length of the dashboard. The system features two pivoting LCD displays to surf the web, check emails or even video conference. Everything is fully connected to the world in real-time information and cloud services.

Even though the Xchange is experimental, Rinspeed has worked with established sub-contractors to prove that the concept is feasible.

Rinderknecht says that driverless cars will not mean the complete end of driving altogether, there will be times when people will want to drive.

“Most driving is boring because you are just eating miles and miles. If I go on the motorway from London to Birmingham, it’s not very joyful. However, if I go over an Alpine pass, I want to drive myself, I don’t want the machine to do it.”

Rinspeed is used to pushing automotive design to the limits. What Rinderknecht calls his “crazy Swiss team” is behind several extreme projects, including it Squba underwater car.

“We are a small company and can think outside the box. We don’t have all the big companies’ constraints, processes and politics. We can be a lot more agile.”

Rinderknecht says he chose the Tesla in part because electric and hybrid vehicles are the future, but also because the configuration of the car was best suited for the multi-position seats.

“People won’t want standard seats in autonomous cars. Have you ever tried to sit back in your car? Your shirt rides out of your trousers. We had to redesign the whole seating schematics.”

Relax and Leave the Driving to the Car

Overcoming safety, liability and regulatory issues will be a big challenge for manufacturers of autonomous cars. Rules governing seat safety are among the most complex, especially when designers want to have them flat, but few of us give it much thought.

“Our starting point was the business cabin of an aircraft and we went from there,” Rinderknecht says. And then there is the issue of comfort. “All that braking and going over bumps, you need a seat that will let you relax,” he says. Rinspeed developed the seats with the world-renowned manufacturer of medical prosthetics, Otto Bock Mobility.

“There will come a time when we will be travelling in a container, with no airbags or seatbelts because the chances of an accident will be so small.” He sees a convergence of automotive technology and artificial intelligence as “an enabler of a new industrial revolution”.