Automobile design is going to go through the greatest evolution since the advent of the car. There’s too much to discuss in detail here, but here’s a couple of things to consider. For multipassenger cars the design will change so that now all the seats will likely be arranged facing each other like seats around a coffee table, and some cars will even have a coffee table in them! Secondly, right now cars are built like scaled down military tanks because they are built to survive smashing into a brick wall at 30 mph. In essence, the safety is built into the hardware. In an autonomous world, though, the safety will be built into the firmware. There won’t be any need to have vehicles that are tanks anymore because they will be very close to crash-proof through the control software. Cars will be more comfortable and human-friendly, but under the skin they will be more like scaled up golf carts rather than the scaled down tanks we’re currently buying.
Those endgame questions are very interesting to me. Cars will be featherweight structures that are just strong enough to support the battery mass for an acceptable vehicle lifespan. They will still be, from the user’s perspective, an acceptable to very luxurious experience depending on the user’s budget but underneath they will be scaled up golf carts. No airbags, no crash structure, etc.
Right now all the safety in a vehicle is built into a vehicle’s hardware. As I mentioned, cars are sort of scaled down tanks.
They’re so safe that a person can literally drive into a brick wall at 30 mph and have a substantial chance of walking away from the accident and going to lunch afterwards. That’s sort of an engineering miracle in my opinion. But once we have autonomous vehicles that meet society’s standards of safety, the safety will be built into the firmware rather than the hardware. And that firmware safety will likely be at least 99% better than the hardware safety currently available to us. Once the firmware safety is 99% better than the hardware safety we’re currently enjoying, there’s really no need for the hardware safety anymore. We won’t need eleven airbags, a thousand dollars in inertia sensors and eight hundred pounds of structural steel. it would be easy to halve the weight of the car, which would have a profound positive impact on battery range and energy policy, among other things. But that’s the engineer’s analysis of the situation. The complication with this is that we live in a media culture rather than a society of engineers, so it won’t just immediately implement just because that’s the best engineering solution. In order to make the transition from hardware safety to firmware safety, it requires a politician at some point to stand up and, to some people’s ears, effectively say, “I think we should make cars less safe.” This is a politically suicidal statement on the level of, “I want to raise taxes” or, “I hate children.” Pardon the hyperbole, but that’s sort of what what we’re dealing with in terms of public perception. This is why we have car/booster seat laws until kids are 8 years old despite the fact that statistics show that car seats offer no additional safety after the age of 2 relative to a properly belted child. So, if we were all engineers in this society, all the crush standards for cars would quickly be abolished for production autonomous vehicles, but we’re not all engineers. Our society is made up of fallible human beings subject to hugely powerful emotional objections like being afraid that their kids will be killed in car accidents. I often wonder what will happen when the overall vehicle safety rate approaches the current school bus safety rate. Will we still be building scaled down tanks? Or will we start building scaled up golf carts? I’m not sure the latter is a foregone conclusion.