How Would You Like Your Robo-Car? Barista-bot? Burrito-mobile? Rolling Movie Theater?

Self-driving cars will become places of their own, not just means of transport

Illustration: Michael DiTullo
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In the future, we may have trouble recognizing autonomous cars as cars. They’ll, by necessity, share some of the same features as the cars that we’re used to: wheels, probably. Doors of some sort, if you want. A general affinity for roads. But we're getting rid of the idea of a human driver, even as we've already gotten rid of the need for a loud and filthy engine at the front.

What you’re left with is, instead of a car, a mobile space. Literally a platform, in the case of GM’s too-far-ahead-of-its-time Hy-wire concept. It sounds like marketing, but imagine for a moment that travel by car could become all about what you’re going to do along the way, instead of how long it takes to get there.

Michael DiTullo is the Chief Design Officer at Sound United, and we love his vision for the future of autonomous vehicles:

What happens when the car evolves from a means of transport to a place itself. Commuting to work? Why not take a Starbucks owned and operated car where you can get a latte and lounge at a table working on your laptop on the way. A long drive to see the in-laws? Maybe call for a movie car where you can watch a Michael Bay blockbuster in full surround sound on that two hour ride. Need to run some errands and grab lunch? Sounds like a burrito car. Need to work off the days stress on the way home? Pick from a workout car or a zen meditation car.

These options won't necessarily come cheap: the cheapest way to travel by autonomous vehicle will probably be by autonomous bus, which will, depressingly, probably be a lot like bus travel is right now. DiTullo does suggest that for some vehicle-based businesses, “the payment in exchange for the goods and services these business provide would pay for the car journey itself.” So you could rent a mobile mini movie theater for a trip from Portland to Seattle, and as long as you don’t skimp on the popcorn or Junior Mints, the journey itself might not cost you anything.

But, the thing to focus on really isn’t the cost: it's how vehicle autonomy will change how we perceive travel. Instead of an annoyance that defines the structure of our lives, it’ll become an opportunity for productivity or relaxation that turns otherwise wasted time into something valuable. Traveling around a city in a vehicle that offers you lunch is just one option, but I’m thinking more about long distance travel, where you could order a car that lets you take a nap. Or perhaps a car that arrives at your door with a floor made of grass, a picnic basket, and that book you haven’t been able to find the time to read. Cars could become anything, and it would turn travel from a chore or a grind into something to actually look forward to every day.

What we really love about this vision isn’t just how amazing it sounds, but also how possible it is. I believe that we will live to experience this reality, where we never have to drive ourselves anywhere (unless we want to) and when someone asks you what your commute is like, you’re able to tell them in all honesty that it's long—and fantastic.

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IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.