} ;

Tesla Autopilot asks: What fate awaits the steering wheel?

23 October 2015 | by Karl Smith

Tesla recently released Autopilot software that allows its cars to run in a semi-autonomous mode. It is a beta version that requires some serious monitoring while engaged, but its arrival does put the automotive industry on notice: Autonomy is here, if in embryonic form, and it is a technology that must be embraced.

However with the incorporation of partial autonomy the interactions between the car and driver becomes paradoxically more complex, not less. There may be less to drive, but there is more to monitor. Besides the road itself, all that equipment – the instrument panel, the HMI, autonomous systems – suddenly the car becomes as much of a driving challenge as in times when the manual choke and planetary transmission were standard features. Watch this video of one particular Tesla ‘driver’ if you don’t believe:

And the steering wheel – the most dominant part of the driving experience which has, in the last two decades practically become an IP itself – suddenly becomes redundant and intrusive for large periods of time. In the Tesla, the steering wheel sits next to the large touch screen, and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the past and the future of the automotive interior warily eyeing each other as they sit uncomfortably side by side.

In past eras, the instrument panel and the steering wheel were so analogue, so intrinsic to the driving experience that there was a visceral and romantic attachment to the controls. It was what separated the driver from the passenger, and a novice from an expert driver.

But all that seems redundant in this new era of emerging autonomy. There’s some sense that the automotive interior will morph from a cockpit ideal to that of a lounge – a more passive and relaxing and social place. The lounge model has its champions and its detractors, but what more and more designers and the motoring press are discovering is that the lounge model cannot be implemented, at least not well, if a steering wheel and traditional IP are on board.

Witness the Mercedes F015 Luxury Vision concept introduced at this year’s CES in Las Vegas. As fellow contributor Joe Simpson commented in his design analysis:

The back-projected IP surface is superficially impressive, but its integration is odd. Its height, positioning and the view it (doesn't) allow out all suggest it wasn't originally intended to be in this concept, and it creates compromise in the space.

The steering wheel, though less obtrusive than some, is part of the ensemble that encroaches on the interior, limiting the space for flexible, swivel lounge seating.

Despite the F015's vastness, when passengers turn towards each other they'll still find themselves engaged in a game of footsie.

It seems pointless to try to implement a more lounge-like space if the steering and IP create a cramped, awkward tangling of legs among passengers. That’s the kind of social automotive experience that nobody wants.

Of course, Google has leapt ahead of everyone in this regard by dispensing with the steering wheel altogether. Its studies have shown that partial autonomy has serious safety issues if a passenger suddenly must become the driver, instantaneously assess a hazard situation, grabbing the steering wheel to make evasive manoeuvres.

So complete autonomy is Google’s approach. And their gumdrop–shaped pod car, while cartoonish in appearance, advances the concept of autonomy more than any other vehicular experiment. A ride in this little pod brings to life the possibility of a true driverless experience that, with a lot more design input, could become a pleasant mobile lounge experience.

Not only has Google leapt ahead of other manufacturers, it is well ahead of legislation and regulations as well. Only a few states in the US allow autonomous vehicles, and those are restricted to the Tesla model where the driver can quickly retake control from onboard systems. This means a steering wheel is on board, and will be for the foreseeable future. And with the inclusion (and intrusion) of the steering wheel in the passenger compartment, the cockpit model will be with us for quite some time – at least another decade, maybe more.

In the meantime, designers have the opportunity to explore the lounge model, as the F015 has tried to do (with some considerable success in places). Already we know some of the challenges and opportunities. More will present themselves as we develop more mature versions of both the lounge and cockpit models. The pivot point between the two seems to rest on the steering wheel – an element of control treasured, even revered, by some. By others, it is a quaint anachronism that must step aside for a new era and a new type of automotive experience.