Open Road

AI will design your self-driving car while you test it in VR

The next frontier in auto design.

With the advent of self-driving and electric vehicles, will we finally see a dramatic shift in general car design? For a century, vehicles have followed a fairly similar formula for each respective class, barring a few exceptions. Designs remained familiar because engineering realities hadn't changed much, drivetrains were big complicated contraptions, and humans needed to operate the vehicles' major controls – and therefore maintain acceptable visibility of the road. Electric powertrains are simpler and more easily manipulated into more unique and adjustable configurations. When a vehicle is driving itself, passengers need not observe traffic or maintain input into the controls. These recent developments have opened a window of opportunity for vehicle designers and engineers to re-explore the shape, experience, and function of modern vehicles.

When motorized carriages entered the market, it was an obvious actuality that they would look similar to horse-pulled carriages. Builders were limited by parts and equipment available to them. The process of invention was more about combining technology rather than dreaming up all new designs, but today's dreamers have access to intuitive rendering software and cheap 3D printers. The range of potential concepts can be as wide as the user's imagination can reach. Technology is accelerating faster and the boundaries of feasibility are moving with it. Perhaps the ultimate design will be one developed by an AI designer. Imagine a program in which you could enter all the desired results of your next automobile and the artificial intelligence works through the problem to develop the best possible solution, testing its way through a hundred years' worth of designs in hours or minutes. Maybe the car of this century is already the car of the next century.

If programs are designing vehicles to pre-determined specifications and 3D printers are manufacturing them, or at least the body that will bolt to a ready-to-go chassis, perhaps the job of vehicle design can be left to each individual consumer. They could manipulate the input criteria for an infinite number of design possibilities, view it in a rendered simulation (maybe test drive it in their VR goggles), and then print their finished unique vehicle onto their pre-purchased chassis. Just like they have been doing in their racing video games for a decade and how they've been pre-subjected to the experience at Disney's Test Track. The whole idea is not as foreign as it may initially sound.

Of course, it will take many creative minds to work out exactly what we want to do with our newfound empty canvas of the automotive exterior and interior. The redevelopment of automotive style could take an expected slow evolutional path, as it always has, to adjust the public to radical new ideas. Although, it is not absurd to believe the interior design department will quickly divert from the current norm. Humans are not likely to sit idly in their transportation as it delivers them to their destination, they will certainly expect to be entertained or be productive during their newly freed up time. It's this expectation that will drive the design of entirely new spaces within cars, SUVs and yes...even trucks. How much more productivity can you squeeze out of your employees when they don't have to concentrate on driving safely to the job site? We can imagine efficient mobile offices in heavy-duty truck cabs, where tradesmen can write up estimates, order material, or even train during what used to be essentially paid downtime.

The current and upcoming generation of engineers and designers have a tremendous opportunity to forge the future of automobiles and possibly define transportation for the next century. While much of the future-car conversation is about ride sharing trends and self-driving car insurance liability, the car styles of the next generation are being sculpted in virtual clay and productivity-maximizing driverless interiors are being developed by money-minded MBA types. Let's not forget that when new technology erupts into the market and disrupts century-old trends, almost anyone has the opportunity to emerge from the shadows with the next genius society-changing idea. Any one of us could lead the automobile into the brave new self-driving future.

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