How will autonomous cars change the user experience?

When it comes to the autonomous vehicle user experience, the auto industry needs to offer something that’s both mind-blowing and unremarkable, writes Martin Kahl

The cornerstones of the automotive industry—people’s love of a car brand, passion for a type of car, pride in owning a particular model and willingness to part with substantial amounts of cash in order to enjoy all of the above, and own something remarkable—could be a thing of the past in a world of self-driving cars.

Special report: How will the autonomous car change the user experience?

Instead, expect an entirely new way of thinking about cars, from how people perceive an autonomous vehicle (AV) and what it looks like outside and in, to who owns it, how it drives and even whether or not riders notice the difference between driven and driverless cars.

AVs will liberate not only those who do not want to drive, but critically, those who cannot, acting as an important aid to people with visual and physical disabilities, the elderly and infirm, as well as those slowed down by young children and cumbersome strollers.

From mass-market to MaaS market

We may be a long way from mass-market autonomous mobility, but we’re also a long way down the line when it comes to considering the potential of an autonomous MaaS market. Correctly calibrated, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) makes vehicle ownership redundant, and autonomous vehicles make MaaS an attractive proposition. If a vehicle can be hailed at any time for an on-demand journey, the need for ownership, with all of its associated running and maintenance costs, becomes redundant and the ride replaces the vehicle as the product.

Expect an entirely new way of thinking about cars, from how people perceive an autonomous vehicle (AV) and what it looks like outside and in, to who owns it, how it drives and even whether or not riders notice the difference between driven and driverless cars

At this point, any desire for a particular automaker brand, vehicle style and colour is replaced by a desire for convenience and cost. If it arrives on time, if the vehicle is clean and comfortable, and if the cost of the ride is appropriate, then the job has been done well. Once an AV has become little more than the next available robotaxi, its exterior form becomes subject to function, dictated by seat configuration and ease of ingress and egress, rather than contemporary design language and styling. Exterior design may become utilitarian, but think of the countless possibilities for interior design and configuration—dependent, of course, upon safety regulation.

Ready to pay the AV premium

Research in 2019 by Capgemini Research Institute found considerable enthusiasm for self-driving cars, including the fact that over half of the 5,500 consumers and 280 executives from major companies surveyed worldwide would be prepared to pay a premium of up to 20% above their current budget to own a self-driving car. Interestingly, the research found that people would expect the vehicle to drive non-driving friends and family around and also run errands, tying in with another finding, namely that consumers expect the time they spend driving to more than halve with a self-driving vehicle.

Summarising its findings, Capgemini identified three themes. First, that any company seeking self-driving car leadership must identify its customers’ hopes, expectations and concerns. Second, the self-driving vehicle must be part of that company’s business strategy, rather than “an innovation project”. And third, any company seeking leadership in this field should “develop an ecosystem of services to complement consumers’ experience while in a self-driving vehicle”.

The importance of trust

Crucially, notes Punchcut, a San Francisco-based user experience design company, AVs turn the user experience from active to passive. The company says there are three things which are essential for societal acceptance of EVs: trust, comfort and control. Without trust, AVs are nothing. A recurring theme, the importance of people being able to trust AVs cannot be understated. Riders must trust that the vehicle is safe, that it knows the same things about the journey and immediate surroundings as they do, that they can communicate and interact fully with the vehicle and that it will make sensible decisions should the unexpected happen.

Research by Capgemini Research Institute found that over half of the 5,500 consumers and 280 executives from major companies surveyed worldwide would be prepared to pay a premium of up to 20% to own a self-driving car

This means providing occupants the correct level of information and ensuring they know what the vehicle is doing, but stopping short of an information overload. As for comfort, it is essential to set expectations of AVs’ limitations and the way they behave, but also to ensure that AVs meet the users’ needs; people may currently be anticipating an AV user experience (UX) beyond their wildest dreams, but the reality could be something much more mundane. Those developing vehicles for shared, autonomous MaaS will also need to “prepare for a multiplayer experience”, advises Punchcut, with vehicles needing to be designed to cater for a wide range of people with myriad expectations and behaviours.

Expect, then, to see a focus on premium-feel interiors that are durable and easy to maintain, flexible seating configurations, and wide-reaching infotainment that is easily accessible and intuitive to use. Punchcut notes a gradual and necessary shift in UX design as automakers realise that simply adding an advanced screen for the driver is the UX of old, and that they need to think beyond the screen: the entire vehicle interior is the interface of tomorrow.

Wheels in motion

One oft-overlooked issue—one that could potentially be the deciding factor between the success and failure of autonomous vehicles—is that of motion sickness, or kinetosis. Despite the huge costs involved in developing, testing, manufacturing and marketing autonomous vehicles, if riders feel nauseous, they will get out of the vehicle and never get back in. Triggered when sufferers have no visibility of or control over a vehicle’s movement, kinetosis affects a small but significant number of people—but brands’ reputations are staked on the opinions of a small but significant number of people. How people feel when they ride in a vehicle will decide its fate, be it a privately-owned car or a MaaS shuttle.

Riders must trust that the AV is safe, that it knows the same things about the journey and immediate surroundings as they do, that they can communicate and interact fully with the vehicle and that it will make sensible decisions should the unexpected happen

And this is before the introduction of what riders might do to occupy themselves in the vehicle, once the act of driving has been removed; automakers need to think carefully about the realities of projecting movies onto a car’s window, for example. A lack of conclusive findings means that research into kinetosis remains in its relative infancy, and a full understanding of the exact causes and much-needed remedies remains some way off.

A good human driver generally makes few if any sudden movements or unexpected turns—and the expectation will be that an AV is at least as good as a good human driver, able to accelerate, brake and steer smoothly and unremarkably. In the world of autonomous ride-sourcing, vehicles will be expected to deliver journeys that are, at the very least, unremarkable.

Feelings of nausea can be unpleasant for the rider, and can ultimately take a robotaxi off the road, necessitating a return to the depot for cleaning, with the operator incurring considerable cost and lost revenue. An all-round bad experience, when unremarkable is good. Most robotaxi passengers will be uninterested in the vehicle’s performance, wanting nothing more than a punctual, convenient and reasonably priced ride, arriving at their destination refreshed and relaxed.

Are you ready to take back control?

Product development company Semcon notes that with automation removing the primary task, namely driving, greater importance is given to secondary tasks, such as scrolling through infotainment options or communicating with friends.

Developers of AVs need to be able to delight people with sensational, gimmick-free products—but they also need to remember that people often just want a journey that is convenient, affordable and otherwise unremarkable

Reducing cognitive load reduces stress for vehicle occupants, but too little cognitive load can increase the time it takes to get a driver back in the loop—essential if the system is reliant upon a driver taking back control under certain conditions. At the same time, riders may for any number of reasons wish to override the car and take back control; no-one likes a backseat driver, but perhaps Semcon’s Head of User Experience, Karin Eklund is onto something with the concept of a backseat driver mode, which gives otherwise passive riders the ability to do just that.

According to user experience specialist Lextant, partial automation can be more stressful than fully manual driving, as drivers need to constantly monitor whether the vehicle is doing what it is supposed to. The trick for vehicle designers here is to enable the driver to use their time however they see fit, but to also remain engaged should they need to take over—and this means delivering only the information needed at the time for that particular task. Expect the way information is delivered to change, from reconfigurable instrument clusters to head-up displays (HUDs), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

How would you describe your experience?

Technology evolves quickly, but the Punchcut view is that human needs do not; people still need human connection, they need a sense of purpose, and they need to feel productive. The AV UX will need to reflect this.

How, then, will the user experience differ with autonomous cars? The answer is likely to be anything from ‘not much’ to ‘everything will change’. Developers of AVs need to be able to delight riders with sensational, gimmick-free products—but they also need to remember that people often just want a journey that is convenient, affordable and otherwise unremarkable.

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