A fully autonomous self-driving car doesn’t really need a steering wheel, or a rearview mirror, or even windows to get where it’s going. But the first models are still likely to have them. (And not just because such features could be legally required.)
In the coming years and decades, as the public decides how to feel about autonomous cars, the way that self-driving vehicles appear will be arguably as important as how they function. And people, Americans in particular, have clearly defined expectations about what cars ought to look like.
“When we’re looking at new devices, you could make them anything, right? Any shape, any form,” said Robert Brunner, the industrial designer who worked for many years at Apple and now runs his own design studio. “But we’re also trying to get people to relate to and understand the technology.” Self-driving vehicles, he says, should feel inviting and friendly, and should inspire confidence. The way to do this might be to follow Google’s lead, and make driverless cars cute. At the very least, Brunner told me, the ideal self-driving car probably shouldn’t be a “black menacing thing with lots of red lights.”
Engineers and designers will also have to take into account some of the new challenges that accompany driverlessness. For instance: How will self-driving vehicles communicate with human drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists? The use of blinkers, brake lights, and hazard lights can be automated, surely, but there are many human gestures and cues that are a crucial part of how people navigate the roads—eye contact, the waving of a hand at an intersection—which a machine can’t precisely emulate.