Product Innovation Trends

Your next car won’t have a steering wheel…and you won’t care.

Tim Anderson | January 16, 2017

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The most advanced cars sold today still require the driver to be aware and ready to take control. But soon, many autos won’t have any driver controls, save for the interface for inputting the destination. Set the target and the car will take care of all of the work. It sounds like science fiction, but Ford has already announced that by 2021 they will be selling fully autonomous cars without a steering wheel or any driver controls.

Describing this future of autonomous vehicles, many have a visceral reaction to the idea of giving up control of their beloved car. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet…there’s no doubt that American’s love their cars. Clearly, a portion of drivers would install square tires before they gave up their steering wheel.

That said, as camera sensors evolve and software algorithms improve, the societal benefits of self driving cars will become widely understood. In the long run, removing humans from the driving equation will increase safety, reduce congestion and improve overall efficiencies.

There’s really no debate whether these self driving cars will be safer than humans. Researchers at Virginia Tech have run the numbers and determined that Google’s fleet of autonomous test vehicles are already today safer than the average driver…and the software folks are just getting started. Robots aren’t distracted, don’t get tired and certainly don’t consume alcohol. You might be thinking that you’re a much better driver than the average Joe, but unless you have the reflexes of a fighter pilot or your last name is Andretti you should get comfortable with the idea that eventually robots will drive more safely than you.

Logical arguments like safety won’t be enough, however, to convince red blooded Americans to take their foot off the gas or their hand off the gear shift. Instead, auto makers will need to provide a more compelling case to get people to cede control of their car to a computer.

The strategy for getting Americans to forget about the steering wheel can be described in one word; Infotainment.

Here’s the scenario…you climb into your 2027 Toyota Camry, and are greeted by a pleasant voice confirming that it’s time to go to work. You let the car know that you want to try a new coffee shop on the way. As you are getting comfortable, the car lets you know that it’s 16 minutes to coffee and 48 minutes to work. At that point the environment shifts to work mode and you’re looking at multiple digital monitors, perhaps even a large projected screen in front of you…all showing your work and productivity data. Instead of a steering wheel you’re presented a keyboard and like that you’ve started the work day. There’s a very real chance that your mobile office will be nicer than the one at work.

Car makers will delight the senses by transforming the car interior into a sanctuary devoted to entertainment or productivity. While a computer takes care of the driving, the car will become a personal cocoon, isolating the rider from outside noise and distractions, providing digital content available on demand.

There’s no argument that many car buyers will continue to demand driver controls. They may let the car drive itself at times, but will want the ability to take control into their own hands. However, as automotive infotainment products evolve and the car interior becomes a beautiful retreat with instant access to a plethora of digital information options many will trade the steering wheel in favor of entertainment, let the computer do the work and in the process redefine the entire driving experience.