3 design trends redefining the way we drive

We look at how three major trends – autonomous mobility solutions, cross-collaborative approaches to design and digital services – are set to redefine our experience on the road.

Die neue E-Klasse – Design Insight: Interieur
Die neue E-Klasse – Design Insight: Interieur

Car manufacturers are experimenting with new technologies; vehicle concepts and ways of working that are propelling significant change in the way we drive.

Design and technology engineering are shaping the look and feel of our cars today and accelerating improvements in comfort, connectivity, speed and handling to seduce the auto buyers of tomorrow.

There are many opportunities for smarter approaches to driving in the future but none are more pertinent than road safety. Most road accidents occur due to human error and if we get the technology right, many lives will be saved. Added to that, smarter control of vehicles could also lead to improved energy efficiency, improved air quality and reduced congestion.

1: Autonomous Mobility

Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse 2016
Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse 2016

With all the big automotive marques putting autonomous vehicles on their near-term roadmaps, cars are fast approaching the time when they will drive themselves. The Audi A8, set for a 2017 launch, is capable of fully autonomous driving of speeds up to 40 mph on motorways.

Marketed at a wider target market, Toyota is aiming to bring self-driving cars to the road by 2020. Meanwhile, BMW’s self-driving iNext is scheduled for production in 2021, a car that features a foldaway steering wheel for drivers using it in its autonomous mode.

Driverless cars operate by using sophisticated, communicating sensors to ensure safe and efficient travel. These technologies include adaptive cruise control, active steering (steer by wire), anti-lock braking systems, GPS navigation technology, lasers and radar.

An impressive degree of automated driving is already available to drivers of several cars including the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The car’s high-tech electrical/electronic systems and its IT infrastructure, together with its sensors, allow a new level of mobile autonomy. The driver only needs to steer – assuming they wish to do so – on a temporary basis. The traffic lane and speed are regulated, while the vehicle reacts to speed limits and to the traffic around it.

Process improvement director for premier banking at Barclays Clive Grinyer says: “Design has such an impact on the desirability, the attraction to form, materials, quality and the whole experience of getting yourself from A to B, it turns out to be a projection of our personalities and dreams.

“I think design’s role [in driverless cars] is to be the arbiter of that opportunity…to turn it into something that still allows us to have that emotional celebration of travel, transportation and the objects we own.”

Will drivers be ready to hand over control?

Trials of driverless vehicles are set for UK streets soon. The question is, will drivers and passengers be ready to hand over control? With this challenge in mind, Paul Jennings, professor of experiential engineering

at the University of Warwick is developing ways to test the real technology in a safe but controllable environment, representative of the real world.

“We specialise in involving end-users in the design of new products and environments, to hopefully maximise their chance of being adopted and used successfully,” he says. “We call this experiential engineering.”

Amanda Gosling, executive partner at IBM Interactive Experience, Global believes that design needs to solve a range of challenges associated with autonomous driving. “Design needs to come into the industry because it is not about the physical product alone,” she says. “It is about the psychological and human side and how you design safety materials and enablement of almost qualifying to be a passenger in a driverless car.”

2: Cross Collaboration

Lexus 500

Cross Collaborative Design is increasingly becoming crucial in the automotive sector. “More and more, the barriers between physical and digital products will come crashing down,” says Phil Gilbert, general manager of mobility at IBM Design. “If the imperative today is the [need for business to happen] faster…then the only way to achieve that is to eliminate hand offs by having people working in a radically collaborative way from day one.”

This more intimate collaborative approach across multi-disciplinary teams is illustrated by the launch of the new Lexus LC500, earlier this year. This high performance luxury car has been lauded by car enthusiasts for its faithful resemblance – both inside and out – to Lexus’ 2012 concept car, the LF-LC. The car ticks boxes for its striking design and smooth handling, achieved through thoughtful design decisions such as placing the heavy parts of the car – including its engine and occupants – lower and more centrally in the chassis.

Design now sits beside engineering and manufacturing

“Every feature on the LC500 is the result of an integrated approach to design and engineering,” says Lexus chief engineer, Koji Sato. “The whole team worked together, engineers and designers alike. This is why we have been able to create such a great car.”

The recent Leading Business By Design report on automotive by the Design Council finds that design is playing a more strategic role in the sector and a new closer collaboration is nurtured by a senior management with a greater appreciation of the specialism.

At Aston Martin, for example, design now sits prominently beside engineering and manufacturing. The report concludes that for new product development success, processes must be structured and collaborative, with a few key people in charge of decisions. Different views must be valued, and at the same time, reconcile.

3. Digital Services

Opel / Vauxhall OnStar Launch
Opel / Vauxhall OnStar Launch

A car’s allure isn’t just about speed, curves and lines anymore. Digital capabilities, developed and provided by both auto brands and technology companies, are fast becoming valuable commodities in our cars. These services – which range from applications for autonomous driving to entertainment, safety and mobility management – are facilitated by the increased availability of high-speed wireless networks and cloud-based data services. They respond to the increasingly connected lifestyles consumers are choosing to lead.

“All our communications, music and internet browsing need to be seamlessly woven in,” comments Mat Hunter, director of strategy at Central Research Laboratory. “In the next few years we are going to see that sense of a [digital] service wrapping itself around the vehicle much more clearly.”

A recent PWC report finds that premium and volume automakers see connected car technologies as essential to their futures. It predicts that over the next five years, manufacturers that have always seen themselves as product suppliers will take on a new identity as providers of mobility services. “This will open the door to lucrative new digital revenue streams, especially as they begin to explore opportunities in other digital areas such as entertainment, commerce, and monitoring a driver’s health and fatigue level.”

Cars feeding data to manufacturers at all times

GM has been blazing a trail with its OnStar service for decades. It was launched 19 years ago, an industry-first service that would place an emergency call from the vehicle when an air bag deployed, and now performs a variety of digital services including unlocking doors, loading driving directions directly to the vehicle and compiling and sending emails on vehicle health.

Opel / Vauxhall OnStar Launch

The service launched in Europe with Vauxhall last year, using GPS technology to provide a direct link between the driver and the manufacturer. Cars containing the service are fitted with buttons above the rear view mirror, which provide the means to speak to a Vauxhall advisor and alert them to an emergency situation. If they prefer not to be tracked, drivers can deactivate the GPS locator for privacy. OnStar also provides a downloadable app for a smartphone to allow drivers to control certain functions of their vehicle such as locating it or starting it. Passengers, meanwhile, sit back and enjoy a WiFi hotspot with the ability to connect to seven different devices.

As far as the automakers are concerned, the wheels of progress keep on turning and the frontrunners are keeping their eyes just as trained on technology as on the road.

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