SEOUL – Technology will drive but not dominate the fully autonomous cars of the future, because people will remain emotionally attached to their vehicles by degrees, Kia Motors design chief Peter Schreyer says.
Schreyer, who also is chief designer for Kia’s Hyundai affiliate, tells WardsAuto in an interview a publicly acceptable and commercially viable autonomous car is still far off in the industry’s future. Therefore the field is wide open, with designers responding to whatever vehicle configuration changes result from technology.
“There are many possibilities, many levels, and a lot of different solutions,” Schreyer says at Hyundai Motor Group’s Advanced Vehicle Design Department during the Seoul auto show.
“In the phase we are in now, maybe there is not so much change, but it will be quite a long phase of transition from conventional cars to completely autonomous vehicles.”
Autonomous-vehicle designs likely will be a radical departure from those of today’s cars. Eliminating up-front space for the driver may lead to varied, sweeping changes in interior layout, and designers’ focus on the interior will carry over to the exterior, he says.
“Styling is attained in the end, but first of all, it’s a philosophy, things (like this) that we need to think about.”
Schreyer emphasizes the industry must ensure autonomous vehicles are compatible with the human condition. More research is needed to determine how people will react to riding in a driverless car and how the interior can be designed to provide the proper environment, esthetics and physical and emotional comfort.
Schreyer gives the example of being pushed in in a wheelchair to show the need for studying human reaction to riding in a vehicle outside their direct control.
“If you walk into a house or a hotel or through an airport by yourself, that is one thing,” he says. “But if somebody pushes you in a wheelchair – because that is also autonomous driving – then the way that you are pushed is always going to be different to the way you would probably want to go.”
Schreyer also suggests autonomous vehicles will vie for the love of owning and driving a car that people have today.
“For me, it’s not so much a question of the styling,” he says. It is a technologically driven initiative. It’s not that you make a fantastic design and then add in the technology. That’s not the way it goes.
“If you have a car that is completely autonomous – that has no driver – it’s going to take its design cues from the inside and not from the outside.”
Both Kia and Hyundai, as well as other automakers, are retrofitting autonomous technology to existing vehicles, but not with commercial applications in mind.
“I think that’s the way to go,” Schreyer says. “It’s the normal way of research. It’s a very complex technology, and there are very complex issues concerning safety, different regulations; not only the technologies.”
Schreyer likens his job to that of an orchestra conductor, where he keeps all the players in harmony. His influence is limited to suggestions to his design teams, but he already is conceiving the considerable differences in the appearances of today’s cars and tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles.
“It’s a new possibility for passengers to enjoy the ride; that is what I see as my main task as a designer.”
The human reactions to being driven by a computer-controlled machine must be researched and understood, Schreyer emphasizes.
“We can’t just put people in an autonomous car (and expect them to comfortably adapt to it),” he says. “If you sit in your car with a driver you have a feeling for what he is going to do next. In an autonomous car, you don’t really know. Will it change lanes or not?”
“We don’t necessarily need all the seats facing forward, but on the other hand we have different issues like motion sickness and others to consider.
“We need to look at the human (as well as the vehicle)”, he continues. “Maybe all of us, for instance, if we sit facing to the back, talking to people, and the car makes a sudden movement…” (He gestures to indicate the unexpected motion is making him carsick).
Schreyer says development of an autonomous car for urban usage probably will be easier than for driverless cars designed to travel long distances. Driving short distances with specific door-to-door stops can be achieved fairly easily, he predicts.
“For long distances on the highway for two hours or so, why can’t we just leave it to the autonomous car? Can you just lean back, make a phone call, do other things? But in the countryside there are many unexpected situations.
“If I come to visit your home in the countryside, do I just park and get out at the front door? Do you have a dog on a leash? Is there a big puddle? Do I need to go to the side entrance? What if I come with my mother and she always needs to get out of the back door right in front of the entrance?
“These are all different situations. This is where it needs a driver.”
Schreyer’s Advanced Design Department team is “constantly working on these kinds of things. We are working on all kinds of things. I cannot talk about details.”
One vehicle he does talk about, and enthusiastically, is Kia’s Stinger sports sedan, which made its global debut in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
“It was developed in our European Design Center and we are all very proud of it,” Schreyer says. “It’s our youngest baby from Kia. It started some time ago as the GT Concept Car.”
He says part of the excitement over the Stinger was the suspense over whether it would go into production. One member of the design team bet a case of champagne it would not – a bet he hoped he would lose. Now he owes his colleagues the champagne, Schreyer laughs.
“At the show you get into the Stinger,” he observes. “And then think about whether you would rather have an autonomous car.”