At Volvo’s design studio in Gothenburg, the boards where they post inspiring ideas used to be covered in cars. Now they’re covered in houses, boats and gadgets. “It’s the most exciting period in the history of car design,” says Robin Page, Volvo’s chief interior designer. “A new world is being opened up.” The reason? Cars that drive themselves.
Autonomous cars introduce three big changes. The first is what you can do in a car when you’re not behind the wheel. Volvo’s prototype driverless car, the Concept 26, has screens that fold out from the doors and seats that recline flat, like a first-class aeroplane cabin for people who want to catch up on email or take a nap. Ford has patented a design for an in-car screen covering the windshield. “The car is becoming a kind of ‘third space’,” says Hartmut Sinkwitz of Mercedes, “a hinge between home and office.”
The ideas are getting more radical. “If you don’t have to drive, you can indulge in experiences,” Page told me. “We’re thinking about making our interiors escapes from the city, taking you into the mountains or forest with projections, scent and sounds.” He’s also thinking about flexibility. On boats the space is often multipurpose. “You can have six people sitting round a table which then turns into a bed.”
The second change is safety. Driverless technology will cut accidents by more than 90%. “That means you don’t have to build cars like tanks, with crumple zones and bodywork full of airbags,” says Dale Harrow, professor of vehicle design at London’s Royal College of Art. This year, he is launching an interdisciplinary department, to mix his students with architects and furniture-makers. “We’ll see more glass in the bodywork, as in modernist houses, and the lightweight materials you get in contemporary furniture: seats made of pale plywood or moulded carbon fibre. You could ride along in an Eames!”
The third factor is branding. “Interiors will be the main difference between carmakers,” Harrow says. “As well as a competition of materials and quality, this is about how the car enables you to occupy your time.” He even designed a vehicle that doubled as a gym. “A friend likens car design to dog breeding,” he says, “a series of gradual improvements. Now we’re inventing a new species.”