LAS VEGAS — YJ Ahn has long played linchpin roles in designing transformational technology products.
She started out working on televisions and home theaters at LG Electronics, then joined Motorola to speed its transition from flip phones to smart ones. Both experiences served as precursor to her most ambitious challenge — head of design at Waymo.
Ahn, 48, joined Google at the outset of its self-driving pro-ject more than a decade ago. She has overseen design of all of the company's vehicles, starting with the tiny autonomous Firefly prototype through today's large Class 8 trucks.
Her latest creation was on display this month at CES. Staff reporter Pete Bigelow sat down with Ahn — inside the cabin of the next-generation robotaxi designed in partnership with Zeekr— to discuss it, the evolution of autonomous vehicles and the driving forces behind her design philosophy. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: You've been with Google and then Waymo since the beginning. Take me back to the early days. Where did you start?
A: We had a small team at the time, and we asked everyone to send us their ideas. Everyone had a different picture of what it was going to be. Some were thinking of toys and others thought of spaceships. They thought of sci-fi movies and illustrations from the 1950s and '60s, where people played games in the back. There was this huge gap. We knew we had to do something that just introduced this technology to the public. Baby steps. Something that was safe and friendly that allowed us to prove out our technology.
What did you learn from designing consumer products at LG and Motorola that applied to self-driving technology?
How quickly people forgot about old home design and older TVs and phones. People forgot that apartments used to have those back mounts and outlets for TVs. With phones, we had a lot of research with Americans saying, "I love my keyboard and I will never give it up." Now they cannot even think about spending a day without their phone.
Are you saying people will forget about what it is like to drive a car?
I really believe self-driving cars will be like that. A lot of people don't believe that. They say "I don't feel comfortable" or "I love driving." They used to love their BlackBerrys. We'll see.
What's baked into the Zeekr design that entices people to forget the current driving experience? How does it build on the self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Jaguar I-Pace robotaxis?
In previous generations, we wanted to work with existing cars so we could work faster. We modified some essential stuff, but we couldn't completely change the vehicles. People don't care about the technology. They want something that's easy to use, something they can use all the time. We want people to say, "Oh, my God, I want to be in there and experience it."
The Zeekr feels spacious. Is there more space or is it an illusion, triggered by the design?
You have the room for three rows of seating, about the same size as the Pacifica, but we only have two rows. So it's very open and comfortable. In the second row, we've designed it to accommodate three 95th-percentile men. People like the openness of the front seat as well. (There are no traditional vehicle controls like steering wheels or brake pedals.) The headrest looks a bit big, but it is not. We lowered the shoulder line, and that contributes to that open feeling.