|AV designers could pick scenic route|
One of the first things I noticed on an early ride in a self-driving prototype had nothing to do with the vehicle and everything to do with the view.
Sitting in the rear seat of a May Mobility shuttle as it trundled around a few blocks of downtown Detroit, I gazed out the panoramic moonroof and through the large windows on the lengthened rear door and saw the Motor City in a whole new way. As much as the ride was a technology demonstration, it inadvertently was a reminder of the city's architectural greatness.
I was reminded of this years-old experience this week after reading that Sarah Sandman, an artist with the TED Fellows, hit upon a similar sentiment when Lexus asked her and others in the global program to imagine new autonomous-vehicle designs.
"One of the most magical moments of travel that I've ever experienced was on the Empire Builder train going cross country," she said of the Amtrak route that operates between Chicago and Seattle. "There is a glass car. You can swivel and look out to see what's happening in the glorious world. Or you can swivel inward and talk to your friends."
That's the sort of 360-degree view and experience she imagines autonomous-vehicle developers could bring to next-generation vehicles.
Of course, there are some practical constraints involving crash-testing and novel seating positions that make such a design difficult to bring to fruition. But the point of this Lexus exercise, in some fashion, was to envision tomorrow's transportation without the baggage of today's restrictions.
Sandman and others in the TED Fellows program sketched some broad ideas on how AV designers could prioritize people and a sense of community in future vehicles. Some harked back to black-and-white 1950s advertisements – the family sitting around a board game as autonomous sedans with pronounced tail fins cruise down mostly empty highways.
But Sandman's notions of self-driving vehicles becoming conduits to the outside world and links to a broader community stand in stark contrast to many of the AV concepts that automakers have displayed at CES and auto shows so far. These either cocoon device-addled passengers in more screens or envision vehicles as mobile offices where employees focus on adding to their "productivity."
Sandman provides a needed outside voice and refreshing alternative that's worth heeding.
Just days before Lexus discussed the project, the National Park Service embarked on a pilot project with mobility operator Beep to use autonomous shuttles to transport tourists around a base village at Yellowstone National Park. It's not hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where the same shuttles can be mobile tour guides, taking visitors around the park while providing context on the history of Old Faithful.
Whether it's in downtown Detroit or majestic mountains in national parks, Sandman's view of the autonomous future is one we're only beginning to glimpse.
-- Pete Bigelow