Experts Address Key Issues of Autonomous Vehicles

Detroit Free Press - May 5, 2013

Design experts gather in Detroit this week to address issues arising out of the growing emphasis on autonomous technology coming from automakers.

How will consumers react to autonomous cars, they ask.

How will customers form an emotional bond with cars that drive themselves, and where will designers hide the huge number of new sensors and electronics autonomous vehicles will use?

Those are a couple of the questions a panel of design experts is likely to address at the Detroit Athletic Club Thursday.

“We could end up with cars that have really thick roofs, because of all the sensors, and the need to place them high up so the car has a 360-degree” field of view, said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham and one of the panelists who will address journalists at an Automotive Press Association luncheon.

A myriad other features we take for granted today may change as vehicles move on their own.

“How do you instill brand character into a vehicle that drives itself”” asked Jason Stein, editor and publisher of Automotive News and the panel’s moderator.

That’s a huge challenge for an industry that defines its products as “driver-oriented” and “the ultimate driving machine.” Automakers will need new ideas and compelling designs to prevent consumers from seeing cars and trucks as no different from their washers and dryers.

“How do you create an emotional link” between a driver and an autonomous vehicle, Stein said.

The relatively few experimental autonomous vehicles now on the road bristle with sensors, cameras and antennae like land-based submarines or bionic hedgehogs, but the challenge of commercializing the technology goes far beyond aesthetics.

“Once you have lots of autonomous vehicles on the road, you can reconsider what safety systems they need,” Hall said. Among the examples he cited:

■ Bumpers that resist 5-m.p.h. impacts become superfluous in a world without fender benders.

■ Headlights are unnecessary if the driver doesn’t need to see what’s ahead, but lights to make pedestrians aware of vehicles are vital.

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