Why Driverless Cars Don't Need Windows

Automated vehicles shouldn't look like the ones humans operate.

A row of Google self-driving cars outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California (Eric Risberg / AP)

For the last 80-some years, the model car has been pretty standard. The tail fins and bucket seats came and went, but there were almost always four wheels, two headlights, and windows, plenty of big, clear windows ringing the car. All of that will change soon because the robot cars upend so many parts of the game that the designers can begin again with a clean file in their design software.

Reconsidering the role of car windows may be the most obvious.

Windows won't be necessary when there's no human inside who needs to see to pick a path. The autonomous cars will use five, 10, or even more cameras looking at every angle and these cameras don't need to be much bigger than the dots on the back of a phone. Some may use elaborate laser range finders that currently live perched on the roof of some of the prototypes but these whirling gadgets don't need windows either.

When riders start having a choice, will they pick and choose autonomous cars with glass portals to the world? The first robot cars will almost certainly have them because it's never good to ask people to endure too many radical changes. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe described how the early Mercury astronauts insisted that NASA add a window to the capsule:

And why? Because pilots had windows in their cockpits and hatches they could open on their own. That was what it was all about: being a pilot as opposed to a guinea pig. The men hadn't stopped with the window and the hatch, either. Not for a moment. Now they wanted ... manual control of the rocket. They weren't kidding! This was to take the form of an override system: If the astronaut believed, in his judgment, as captain of the ship (not capsule), that the boost rocket engine was malfunctioning, he could take over and guide it himself—like any proper pilot.  

The emphasis is Wolfe's but the same holds for the autonomous cars. Early riders aren't going to want to be ‘spam in a can,’ the astronaut's term; they'll want some control over this robot driver and windows are a big part of having a seat at the committee table.

Google's early prototypes started with stock cars from current manufacturers and lately they've been releasing pictures of their own design which looks like a smaller Volkswagon with windows in all of the normal places.

Daimler, though, understands that they have an opportunity to throw away the old rules and they've been muscling into the picture with the Mercedes-Benz F-015, a futuristic concept car that looks like a silver kidney bean. To the outsider, it's often hard to tell if there's any windows at all because the glass is coated to have the same silver gloss as the metal. The riders, though, can still see out a big front windscreen and slim side glass. But Daimler doesn't seem to think the passengers will spend much time actually looking out them. A number of the photos from the company emphasize the way that four passengers can sit facing each other, talking, working or playing games, all while ignoring the outside world.

If they do look out, they're just as likely to see the big touch screens on each door—screens that seem bigger than the slim windows. These can let anyone take control of the car— Daimler calls it "conducting"—and also pull up any other images.

The sales literature from Daimler certainly anticipates that the riders will be like the early astronauts, promising us "a continuous exchange of information between vehicle, passengers and the outside world." But one video shows a man rolling through the desert in the southwest while the touchscreens display imagery of the Louvre in Paris. It's not a car, it's a "digital living space" that provides "a perfect symbiosis of the virtual and the real world."

If the riders will be immersed in the touch screens and tablets as they roll through the world, is there any advantage to real windows? Aside from letting the passengers watch the scenery and feeling like they have some chance to control the vehicle, there's not much that the glass offers—and much that it detracts.

Standard glass is not as strong as steel and so the designers must compensate for the glass when desiging the frame. If there's a crash, the glass offers no protection. (Though the way that it shatters into a million tiny pieces is considered a step up from the way that crashes used to produce flesh-ripping shards.) In the winter the glass offers little insulation and in the summer, the windows let in too much heat, heat that must be removed by the air conditioner.

The windows also offer no privacy, letting anyone see in. If the riders really want to know where they're going, they can watch a video feed from the car's many cameras displayed on some tablet or wall screen. These cameras may even have zoom lenses and so the screens and tablets could offer a better view with greater detail than the old windows.  (A movie thriller will undoubtedly include some plot where the people inside are fooled about their destination with a hacked video feed.)

The sentimental among us may still choose windows out of nostalgia, but the autonomous car world could be dominated by fleets of robot cabs run by accountants. The managers will flinch at extra costs and almost certainly grow to see windows as an extra expense that breaks too easily and adds too much to the air-conditioning bill.

What will people choose? Today, buses with many passengers have windows so people can watch where they're going but custom coaches designed for smaller groups often have no windows. Rock-and-roll bands on tour almost always seem to choose the buses with no markings and no windows at all.

The early riders in autonmous cars may want the power of being a captain of a ship, but in time people seem to aspire to the lazy hedonism of being a rock and roll star. And so they'll probably choose cars as rock stars pick buses—with few windows except, perhaps, a small porthole like the astronauts were given, just in case.

This article has been excerpted from the second edition of Peter Wayner's book, Future Ride.