A Unique Solution to Traffic: The Driverless Car

08 Dec, 2009

We’ve all been through it, and millions do every day: rush out the door to be at work on time, get on the expressway—and sit. It’s not like the time spent sitting in traffic is productive; hands on the wheel, foot alternating between the gas and the brake, attention out on the road ahead. Some cheat and actually check their e-mail, send and receive text messages and make business calls during this time. But strict laws are catching up with these folks and soon it will be a thing of the past—and again, we will just sit.

One industrial design firm, San Francisco–based Mike and Maaike, has taken a unique approach to this problem. “Our cities—and really our lives—are greatly influenced by these products we call cars,” Mike Simonian, co-owner of the firm, told Organic Connections. “With the difficult times the auto industry has had recently, and the excitement around the coming wave of alternative-fuel vehicles, we believe now is the time to rethink the way cars are designed. We asked ourselves: What is the ultimate driving experience? Each person in our studio had a different idea of this, but what was consistent was that none of these idealistic visions really involved driving at all. As our French intern, Laure, said at the time, ‘I just want to sit back, relax, and enjoy the view with a nice glass of wine, some cheese and a baguette.’ We came to this conclusion: For us, the ultimate driving experience is not driving.”

Thus was born the concept of the ATNMBL—short for Autonomobile, a title that merges autonomy with automobile. The whole idea is you step into the vehicle, sit back, relax, and just tell the ATNMBL where you want to go. And you get there.

Although it sounds like science fiction (and science fiction has sure seen its share of such vehicles), a closer look reveals the fact that much of the technology required for such an invention already exists. GPS, sophisticated sensors, and navigation databases would allow driverless vehicles to operate on the same roads we have today.

The atnmbl certainly takes a drastically different direction in vehicle design. It’s a lot more like stepping into a comfortable living room or lounge than climbing into a car. There is no steering wheel, brake pedal or driver’s seat, and windows allow views on all sides. It is designed from the inside out with elements influenced by architecture and domestic interior spaces without reference to automobiles of the past. The vehicle’s mechanical components are densely packed and simplified, providing dramatically more interior space in a vehicle that is shorter than most cars on the road today. Electric motors in each wheel provide all-wheel drive. Electric power is stored underneath the seating and floor, and additional power is provided by solar panels on the roof. Within a gridded pattern on the front and rear is an array of headlights, taillights and sensors.

Obviously such a concept would not be well received by the power-hungry classic-car set—but Mike and Maaike don’t necessarily see such drivers as their public. “The feedback has been polarized and very dependent on age,” Simonian explained. “Some people who grew up, as I did, in an era where driving represented freedom, see the idea of no longer driving as a threat to this freedom. Meanwhile younger people, whose freedom is defined more by communication and technology—namely, connected social networks—have reacted quite positively. In fact, many see driving as a distraction from all of the other things they would rather be doing. Interestingly, when we talk to seniors who are either getting uncomfortable driving or are unable to drive altogether, this concept represents an enormous sense of freedom and the ability to stay mobile for longer.”

Simonian’s description of what would be a typical experience with the ATNMBL is, to say the least, intriguing. “Summoned either by calling it or through a phone application, ATNMBL would arrive at your location, wherever that might be. Upon entering, you would be asked a simple question: ‘Where can I take you?’ Imagine getting into a limousine and the driver knew how to get anywhere; knew all of the addresses of your friends, family and business; knew your preferences and could introduce you to new places and experiences, restaurants, nature and entertainment. Rather than sitting in traffic pushing the brake and the gas and steering in and out of lanes, you could spend your travel time doing things you want to do: calling people, e-mail, games, movies, exercise, reading, learning about your surroundings, or sleeping.”

Simonian points out the differences in living that ATNMBL would make. Ultimately you would regain hours of your day that were previously wasted driving. In addition, ATNMBL could autonomously rent itself out to people within your trusted social network (think Facebook or Linked-In apps), thereby making you money while you are at work instead of sitting parked, like most of our cars do for 22 hours a day. Besides virtually eliminating traffic accidents, our cars would be networked, creating new ways to control traffic flow and ultimately eliminating traffic itself. The environmental benefits would include a drastic reduction in energy use and emissions from transportation, increased carpooling and fewer cars.

The ATNMBL is only a concept at this stage—targeted at being implemented by the year 2040. But the firm—which has contributed major innovation in design to the G1, the first phone to run Google’s Android operating system, and the Xbox 360 gaming system—is making this effort now so that such technology eventually finds its way into the mainstream. “We will definitely see elements of this sort of approach in future production cars,” Simonian said. “Ultimately, the technology will evolve from systems that are already in our cars today, such as cruise control and collision-avoidance systems. Our concept is designed for 2040; we are selfishly hoping it arrives by then so we can enjoy mobility well into our golden years.

“We created the ATNMBL concept to provoke new conversations about cars that focus not only on what’s under the hood but on the entire driving experience. By looking at cars in an expanded way, we may be able to improve not just our transportation experience but our environment and our lives.”

To find out more about the ATNMBL, visit Mike and Maaike’s website at www.mikeandmaaike.com.

Published Dec. 8, 2009.

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  • http://www.garrygolden.net Garry G

    Absolutely..! There is a clear trend towards telematics that assist the driver – and will soon be able to assume basic functions. My only personal preference is to sell this vision as upselling the role of the human- rather than downgrading it to no longer necessary.

    My framing is that software (telematics) will transform the driver into captain. In charge, but not necessarily doing the low end driving work. instead we are surveying the bigger picture of the road ahead…

    http://www.garrygolden.net/2010/02/26/future-of-auto-industry-telematics-and-connected-cars-will-transform-the-driver-into-captain/

    Garry G
    Brooklyn NY

  • Patron Vectras

    or… we could reintegrate the train systems killed by auto makers in the first half of the century. MAGLEV, anyone?