The car was once a physical embodiment of freedom and liberty, allowing us to drop everything and take to the open road. Today, it’s a symbol of oppression — a mobile prison cell where drivers “do time” as they sit in traffic on their daily commute. Over the next decade, this may change: Self-driving technology will allow passengers to focus their attention on other tasks. That same commute could become a source of great excitement, a private moment in the day for work or pleasure.
There are still technological challenges to be overcome before self-driving vehicles can be allowed onto the streets. The technology underpinning existing voice recognition services like Siri and Alexa is safe in the home, but can’t be trusted with human lives on the road. In this instance, the process of launching and then iterating isn’t an option. (You could argue it shouldn’t be an option when it comes to keeping your home’s doors locked, either.)
As the driver role shifts from human to machine, the distinguishing features of vehicles are destined to shift from exterior to interior. Rather than the leather upholstery or futuristic curves in bodywork, a car’s quality will be determined by what its software can offer in terms of a complete and personal driver experience.
This major transformation will undoubtedly be painful for the automotive industry — not unlike how iOS and Android obliterated early mobile operating systems like Nokia’s Symbian. In the case of mobile, hardware evolved but software stole the show.
So, what will this redefined driving experience be like? To get an idea, we can look to the home. We’re already experiencing a domestic revolution as voice-powered experiences continue to permeate the connected-home market. Similarly, voice offers countless possibilities in the automotive space. While primarily enabling the safe use of existing controls like radio or air conditioning, it could also offer novel GPS functionalities. Passengers could query detailed information: “Can we take the next left? What’s the best lunch spot nearby? Why is my engine light on?”
To take things a step further, these changes could revolutionize the car as we know it. Your car may no longer be just your car — it could become a truly “mobile” home. It could be parked outside your office at 5 p.m. just in time for you to beat the afternoon rush. It could get your kids to school, adapting to traffic to get them there seamlessly. The roads could turn from congested, dystopian nightmares to effortless utopias. The number of potential applications — most of which are yet to be realized but are technologically viable — would not only make the driving experience more comfortable, but could redefine our entire understanding of what it means to use a car.
At its core, the car of the future will be driven by a virtual chauffeur, a luxury that is currently only afforded by the wealthy. Crises such as losing your keys or forgetting where you parked are likely to become problems of the past. Always having your car waiting for you by the door, with the seat and climate levels adjusted to your comfort and your next app appointment programmed into the GPS, is a service that can today only be provided by a living and breathing chauffeur. In the future, perhaps your unmanned car could even provide a butler service, where it does your errands while you work, suggesting improvements along the way — making you twice as productive. Who’ll need delivery services anymore?
At a very basic level, driverless cars offer the possibility of turning the daily commute from a necessary evil into an opportunity to get a headstart on some of the day’s more straightforward tasks on your way to the office. Or it could simply provide just more time to unwind.
While the exterior of our cars may not morph into our homes, the change we’re likely to see on the inside will redefine the experience of mobility.
Peter Cahill, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Voysis, a voice AI platform.