The User Experience of Driverless Cars

I recently took a short road trip with a friend from Brooklyn to Dover, DE for a concert. As we inched south through New Jersey in typical I-95 traffic, conversation shifted to Google’s autonomous car project:

“We’ll be no more than 10 feet from the car in front of us,” Andrew exclaimed, “still going 65 mph! Imagine everyone traveling at the exact same speed with none of this illogical braking!”

We traded bits of news gathered from articles about how much safer the roads will be, how much energy we’ll save, and, of course, how much traffic we won’t be complaining about.

“If a central transportation network knows where every car on the road is headed, there must be ways to programmatically group cars with similar destinations and manipulate the infrastructure to create quicker routes.”

I was referencing what Höweler + Yoon Architecture developed for the Audi Urban Future competition in their Boswash:Shareway 2030 concept. The project imagines a connected network streamlining multiple modes of transportation that goes beyond the subject of autonomous cars —referring to the larger urban landscape and mobility in general—but it illustrates an important trend happening right now that’s paving the way for the autonomous cars of the future. We are seeing the internet’s physical potential being actualized in the form of connecting objects with environments and with people, mostly to streamline life’s everyday activities. Some call this the Internet of Things, and autonomous cars are another instance in this trend, making travel less stressful, costly, and dangerous.

However, of all the objects we’re connecting to people and environments, automobiles are a very unique instance. They’re symbols of freedom and passion, especially here in the United States. Songs and movies have been written about them, first kisses (and other firsts, I’m told) have taken place ‘parking’ in them, and some of the world’s most fervent sports fans literally stare at them circling a track. We’ve built up a collective nostalgia from the ‘user experience’ of driving that over time has helped define American culture.

But the experience of driving is about to change, and so must our relationship with cars and how they fit into society. It’s important we begin talking about what that means beyond all the energy, money, time, and lives we’re due to save.

To frame a conversation about the user experience of driverless cars, we can look through three lenses: Control, Freedom, and Trust.


Control | Freedom | Trust

I drive a car with manual transmission, which is a rarity these days. In fact, that I own a car at all in New York is uncommon, but I enjoy the feel, the connection between my movement and the mechanical reaction that makes the car go! It’s a matter of control, like steeping coffee in a French press versus letting it drip in a machine. I feel more accountable and responsible for the car’s movement, and therefore I’m more engaged in driving.

The recent Google car prototype features no steering wheel, brakes, or turn signals, and certainly no clutch or gearshift. It looks eerily empty inside, similar in a way to the first iPhone, whose interface-less interface changed our behavior and the way we interact with people and our environment in ways we don’t completely understand yet. Beyond being the conduit to the current Internet of Things trend, this culture disruptor has taught us how influential the human-computer interface can be.

With the driver’s controls, and, therefore, purpose now relinquished, he/she is no longer the primary user but a passive passenger (just another back seat driver?). The driver’s cockpit will shift to feel more like an extension of familiar environments like our homes, offices, trains or subways, though with the potential to become more personalized.

This is an important point for us at Second Story, where we don’t currently design vehicle interfaces, but we do explore our relationship with environments and how we interact within them. So, before driverless car interiors are lined with screens, the interesting conversations will be around what new roles the users of this environment have. What will an optimal seating arrangement look like? Will the father of nuclear families still sit in the driver seat? Will the driver still reach across to protect his/her passenger after a sudden stop? Will so much control be relinquished that parents send their children alone in the car to school and back? In this new flattened hierarchy of users, the notion of control is about to be radically redefined.


Control | Freedom | Trust

When I think of early moments in my life that triggered a monumental feeling, driving alone for the first time is up at the top of my list. It was just a 10-minute trip to Blockbuster (THAT long ago), but it gave me one of the first sensations of fearless adventure and escape I can remember. And it was adamantly clarified to me that with my newfound power comes responsibility. “Your life,” as my father put it, “is in your own hands.”

Receiving one’s driver’s license is a rite of passage, a tangible milestone in the transition from adolescence to adulthood where the notion of “responsibility” becomes a truly real thing.

I tried to imagine this life event in the time of driverless cars. A 16-year-old—perhaps even younger considering that the risks associated with driving would be irrelevant—would excitedly enter an address into the car’s computer, say a nearby 7-11 (which, unlike Blockbuster, would surely still be around). I then imagine her kicking back and texting her friends or checking her social feed. I can’t imagine her experiencing that liberating sensation of steering in whatever direction she wishes or the accountability associated with this newfound access to anywhere.

But the notion of freedom and exploration has been changing in recent years, especially as it relates to our cars and the millennial generation’s desire for them. According to a 2013 Time Magazine article by Brad Tuttle, fewer and fewer people between the age of 16 & 34 are buying cars.

Car-sharing services like Zipcar and Lyft have made individual mobility easier and cheaper by removing the commitment of owning. These new models of car usage are contributing to a shift in sentiment toward automobiles from passion to convenience, so freedom could be interpreted as the freedom to mobilize only as needed. And with driverless cars we would be able to seamlessly shift from one environment to the next without having to disconnect and distract from our digital activity (whether this constant connection is beneficial to us is a whole other conversation).

So how might we hold onto our sense of exploration and responsibility in the future of driverless cars? And is this a task worth undertaking? Perhaps we shouldn’t fret because new technology might continue to dictate our cravings for digital connection over an analog escape. In any case, multiple driving modes would help ease the transition. Maybe we include a configurable interior where one could choose the ‘classic setup’ featuring a steering wheel. We could flip cruise control around and allow a young driver to take the lead until the car’s computer anticipated danger, similar to today’s crash avoidance systems. Maintaining some sense of personal responsibility and the potential for escape might help ease the adoption of driverless cars.


Control | Freedom | Trust

When my friend asked what I thought about Google’s driverless cars, I sat for a few seconds looking out at the people driving on the highway and thought: We will have reached the point of no return when we give up human control and rely solely on an invisible technology to manage our lives (admittedly I saw flashes of Terminator 2). Indeed a cynical reaction, though I would think it’s a daunting prospect for most of us. But how we trust our technology has changed dramatically just in the last 50 years.

There was a time not so long ago when we balanced our own checkbooks. We now sign into our banking websites with the same credentials as our Pinterest account. We send money freely over the Internet to companies we might not have heard of a week ago in exchange for a T-shirt. There is a sense of comfort we have achieved with technology because the incentives for convenience and efficiency have outweighed the risks.

But technology still disappoints us even without human error. Have you ever sent a text message to learn that it didn’t successfully send and a miscommunication resulted? Or sent the feared autocorrect message that incited a look of terror on both your face and the recipient’s? Even worse, our technology can purposely manipulate us—remember Facebook’s “Emotion Contagion experiment that caused an onslaught of outrage?

Now consider a driverless car failing us on a much larger scale: it takes us to the wrong location, makes us late, or worse, it jeopardizes our safety. In the last year, writers have tapped into the life or death dilemma designers of autonomous cars might have to consider: should a driverless car make impact with a person or car in front of it or swerve to effectively injure/kill its own passengers? There’s no easy answer, but the question is important for us to consider. Even though driverless cars are slated to save a staggering number of lives, when we leave instinctive decisions up to technology, a great debate surely divides us.

Earning trust in any form takes time. In the case of driverless cars, we will first need to overcome our fear of losing too much control and freedom. At what point will that happen? Some argue there is a threshold where our trust in technology results in diminishing returns for society, but it is technology’s tendency to recast cultural rules, to expose new possibilities that enable us to do more and better—the invention of the printing press, for example. Eventually we’ll all have to consider where that threshold lies and what sacrifices we’re willing to make in order to continue evolving with technology.

— Justin Berg, Experience Design Lead


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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