The next big paradigm shift in automotive design

Lessons from aviation: a passenger centric approach to driverless cars

Everyone is talking about autonomous vehicles today, and with good reason: autonomous driving technology, once perfected and deployed at scale will enable the most fundamental shift in automotive transportation since the industry began just a century ago, and we are currently in the heat of this transformation. There is also a huge amount of money to be made by the people (and companies) who own the technology and refine the experience. This, and of course the accelerating adoption of electric vehicles, will mark the next few decades as the most important transformation in our automotive transportation infrastructure. It will change how we move, the relationship we have to the places we live in and fundamentally change our notion of mobility and service.

New, agile startups, eager to capitalize on this transformation are appearing; certain industry leaders will continue investing massive amounts of capital to claim their position as leaders in the future; and slow moving giants unable to keep up with the pace will become less and less relevant. It’s certainly an exciting time to witness the transformation happening, and it’s even more exciting to be part of the conversation.

I’ve recently been very interested in how the experience of an autonomous vehicle will change as a result of a shifting focus from a driver-centric approach to design to a passenger-centric one. Additionally, we will see a shift to a new economic relationship between the user and the product as companies introduce innovative business models that are more flexible and better catered to users.

As a former aircraft interior designer, I see many correlations between the kinds of challenges and business models airlines have taken and the kinds of opportunities driverless cars will enable in the future. Perhaps some of these correlations will seem a bit forced, but I think this serves as an interesting exercise and hopefully a fruitful conversation will result by exploring these ideas in the open.

Service

Airlines have approached the market by focusing on different kinds of users and these have resulted from a variety of tickets and seat types. Economy, premium, business, and first class are the standard class categories. If you pay more, you get more: faster check-in, skipping queues, good food, lounge access, and of course, more space in the plane. Paying for the base economy fare will get you the basic service of getting you from A to B, at the cost of service and legroom. Business class tickets in long haul flights often mean getting a seat that turns into a full-flat bed which is really worth it if you are flying to the other side of the world and you have a meeting when you arrive.

There will be different classes of autonomous vehicles in the future. We already see on-demand ride services like Uber offering a selection of services ranging from UberPool (economy), UberX (premium) and UberBlack (business).

A passenger-centric and service oriented approach to automotive transportation enabled by autonomous technology will usher a variety of services and automotive designs. By removing the driver’s position and switching to electric drive system, designers will have much more freedom to create innovative passenger-centric cabin designs. Hopefully vehicle safety regulations will move quickly enough to enable these kinds of new seating arrangements and cabin configurations. We will see single-passenger, couple or duo, and group setups. Some vehicles will be optimized for commutes: these will have internet access and desks so that you can clock-in to work when you hop in the car. Allowing people to clock time during their commute will improve productivity, work-life balance, and hopefully would shorten people’s work days, giving them back the time they lost during their commute. Other vehicles will have interiors for long distance travel with seats that fully recline, window shades and soft interior lighting.

Access to transportation as a service will be available in a variety of options: pay-as-you-go or subscription with frequent users getting perks such complementary upgrades to premium vehicles or shorter wait times during peak hours when needing a ride on-demand. I think the market will flourish with different providers, each catering to different sets of needs and use cases. We see this with airlines today: some focusing on the low-cost market and providing a cheap, reliable service like Air Asia or Ryan Air, or keeping a high quality product with exceptional comfort and service like Singapore or Emirates.

Product

Currently, on-demand ride services like Uber are utilizing established hardware: driver-centric passenger cars. Current automotive design takes a driver-centric approach to interior design, and passenger-centric features are more of an afterthought. Traditionally, it made sense to focus on creating the best possible experience for the driver of the car since the driver is the one buying and using it. Getting rid of the driver and focusing on the passenger means shifting from a driver-centric to a passenger-centric mindset: the norm in the aviation industry. Most of us don’t think about how to fly a plane when we board on it, we are more concerned about the experience we are going to have, getting fed, getting some rest and getting to our destination safely. Similarly, the focus will be on the passenger: comfort, customization, entertainment, productivity and safety will all be very important to users.

Comfort and customization: Normally, only the driver and front passenger seat are adjustable, but a passenger centric approach would emphasize the value of passengers being able to control their seats. We might not see this feature on the baseline options (economy class equivalent) but it’s not difficult to project that that in the future, each passenger will have a preferred seating configuration and this information will be stored digitally and linked to the rider. After requesting a ride, the car will arrive with the seat automatically adjusted based on their preferred configuration.

Entertainment: How does a passenger play their own music? Music and comfort controls like air-conditioning that are normally placed within reach of the driver will be relocated within reach of the passengers.

Productivity and connectivity: The location of USB ports to charge your cell phone are always in the front of the car, and usually there is only one port for the driver. A passenger centric approach would expose a USB port for each passenger, enabling passengers to charge their devices and perhaps get a bit of work done or follow up on their social media. I expect smartphones to continue having an important role in our lives for the next decade, so charging endpoints will remain important and expected. A deployable tray table like those on a plane would also be useful if you want to open your laptop to get some work done.

Driving and safety: Riders could possibly configure and save a preferred driving style, with one option optimized for comfort and travel smoothness: for passengers who need to get some work done or want some rest; and another optimized for speed: for passengers in a rush and who don’t mind acceleration.

Ownership and Access

It’s obvious why most of us don’t have our own airplanes, they’re extremely expensive to own and maintain. With respect to cars, I think it’s actually quite remarkable that we have managed to reduce the cost of a car to something that is affordable to an individual and that we have put up with the annoyances related to driving, parking and maintaining a car. However, even though the immediate cost to the individual is affordable, the long-term societal cost is not. Many cities have been designed assuming driving is the preferred system for transportation.

There are many people today that don’t have access or are able to drive a car. People under the driving age, elderly people, people with handicaps or vision problems, people without a license, and people that simply don’t have enough money to have access to a car are among the transportation “have-nots” of today. This is certainly a barrier for entry. In the aviation industry there are constraints, particularly relating to space and weight, but besides this, aircraft interior designers go to great lengths to make sure that seats and services are usable by as many people as possible, including children, elderly, or physically challenged. The barriers to entry for a domestic flight are essentially: a government identification card or passport and the cost of a flight ticket.

Electric cars are mechanically simpler and therefore require less maintenance, but this doesn’t mean that they will be cheaper immediately. Similarly, early fully autonomous vehicles will cost quite a lot to make. Current LIDAR sensor systems that are used in Google’s self-driving cars cost in the $10,000 range. This would put the total cost of ownership outside of the range of most family’s budgets, if you held the traditional notion of car ownership. But this doesn’t mean that access to a self-driving car will be unaffordable. The average total uptime of a car today is about 3.8%, whereas network efficiency for a typical airline is around 60%. Even if a car had an uptime of 50%, that’s already a more than tenfold increase in productivity. With downtime being for maintenance, charging/fueling and passenger boarding/exiting, then the total cost of access will be radically less than that of a conventional car since the the total cost of the vehicle will be shared by all the users. A lower barrier to entry will mean even more users, including children, elderly, handicapped and all the people that I mentioned earlier who don’t have access to a car: this will create even more demand, driving further availability of self-driving services, further lowering the cost in the long term.

Technology and Maintenance

Airlines are constantly trying to maximize the productivity of their aircraft, and that means keeping it in good mechanical condition. Systems are regularly checked during each turnaround. Similarly, self driving cars will constantly be monitoring all their systems and will prioritize maintenance to optimize uptime. If we accept that user ownership of these vehicles is no longer important, than we can also offload the responsibility of maintenance. I think this is a better system, as owners are likely to delay or skip regular maintenance and checks because this requires time and money on their part. “Can I drive an extra 1,000 miles I replace my brakes?” is a question I ask myself as I get close to the recommended service period, as the upfront cost of doing replacing the worn parts is obvious, but the exact long term value is harder to quantify. A vehicle with a multitude of sensors constantly measuring and tracking its performance will enable precise and optimal maintenance routines that will maximize uptime and minimize cost.

A well maintained aircraft can remain in service for several decades and during this time, jet engines can be upgraded, cabin interiors refreshed, in-flight entertainment systems updated several times before being de-commissioned. If we take a modular approach to a vehicle, vendors who are responsible for ongoing vehicle maintenance can also refresh the interior every other year, without needing to change the chassis, which is probably perfectly functional. The life-cycle of the vehicle can be considered if it is to be provided as a managed service. Certain components have longer lives than others:

  • Batteries would get changed and recycled when they cease to hold their charges effectively
  • Cabin interiors can be refreshed as designs start to look dated or advancements in comfort are made
  • Electronic systems and connectivity hardware can get upgraded as new standards are developed
  • Sensors and complex components would get replaced as they get worn or begin failing
  • Software would be kept up-to-date

This makes considerably more sense as we see technological development move faster. We want a world where the vehicles we use are completely secure, up-to-date and in perfect working condition, especially if we are relying on them to drive us around with no driver. Cars can quickly feel technologically dated as the development cycle for a vehicles struggle to keep up with the rate of software change. Moving away from vehicle ownership to transportation as a service and a passenger-centric will help keep vehicle fleets up-to-date.

Sustainability and a better society

Many of these changes will obviously improve the sustainability of the automobile industry. We could seriously reduce the number of vehicles driving on roads and parked in street or parking lots while increasing total use, lowering barrier to entry and ensuring financial sustainability for companies in the automotive and transportation service industry.

Commercial aviation is a very labor intensive industry: you need pilots, flight engineers, service crew, ticket agents, security guards, baggage handlers, cargo agents, catering, mechanics and technicians. Unfortunately, autonomous driving technology will significantly effect people who depend on driving as a job. Truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers and Uber or Lyft drivers will be affected by machines taking their jobs.

But what about new kinds of labor created as a result of this? My immediate thoughts are again inspired by the aviation industry. Aircraft turnaround is the process of deplaning and boarding, having maintenance crew do checkups, refueling, and cabin service: cleaning the plane and preparing it for the next flight. Similarly, self-driving cars could make pit-stops at a garage where they recharge and have the interior cleaned before the next day of use. Other, more interesting scenarios would be a crew that can quickly change the interior of the car depending on demand. Whereas during the weekdays interiors are designed for commuting, on weekends interiors get swapped out for families wanting to do trips out of town.

Driverless cars will enable truly innovative and delightful passenger-centric experiences that simply weren’t possible in the last 100 years. Even though, the automotive industry will have to completely rethink their products and strategy, in many ways we can look towards the aviation industry for lessons. I believe a shift from driver-centric to passenger-centric will mark the biggest paradigm shift for the next revolution in automotive design.