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The race is on to figure out what self-driving cars should look like

Is this what the ideal self-driving car will look like? Researchers are trying to figure that out. (Michigan engineering)

More than a 100 years ago, the first cars were called horseless carriages. The name was fitting, as those early vehicles strongly resembled the carriages that horses would tow. The incumbent form of transit — horse-drawn carriage — rubbed off on the emerging form of transit — vehicles powered by gas combustion engines.

Now we’re at the dawn of the driverless transportation era and we’re talking about self-driving cars. Just as the name “horseless carriage” gave way to car — as we found better forms for vehicles powered by internal combustion engines — the term self-driving car will probably give way to something entirely different in name and appearance.

Looking to the past has long slowed our ability to invent the future. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror; we walk backwards into the future.”

[Two sentences explaining why your self-driving car won’t have a steering wheel]

To expect self-driving cars to look almost exactly like the vehicles on our roads today is naive. Just as the look for the horseless carriage disappeared, it’s likely we’ll see the same happen with autonomous cars.

So what will the self-driving vehicles of tomorrow look like?

David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, argued in a recent paper that we’ll see a Cambrian explosion of new vehicle forms that are designed for specific tasks.

“The fleet will have greater variety, with the right size vehicle assigned to a particular job. Today there is a car-size arms race: people buy larger cars, which are perceived to be safer for the occupant, and taller cars, which allow the driver to see in front of the car immediately in front of them,” Levinson said. “Both of these advantages are largely obviated with autonomous vehicles. The car-size arms race ends.”

Self-driving cars should prove significantly safer, proponents say, meaning we won’t need such heavy vehicles to provide protection. Perhaps our vehicles will resemble golf carts, which some have already predicted are more likely than the highly-regarded Tesla to topple the heavyweights of the auto industry.

Vehicles may also be able to travel cities at lower speeds. With vehicle-to-vehicle communication and programmed intersections, self-driving cars wouldn’t have to stop at red lights. This could drastically reduce travel times, without requiring a high speed of travel.

The average vehicle today can go over 100 mph. But that power is wasted in urban areas. The average daytime speed of vehicles in Manhattan is just under 8 mph. A car with a top speed of 15 mph that never has to stop at a red light would provide a far superior way to get from A to B.

While research continues to create self-driving cars that can drive better than a human, there’s also work to figure out the size and appearance of self-driving cars.

“We don’t know what this vehicle should look like,” said Edwin Olson, a professor at the University of Michigan. “Google has built a beautiful low speed electric vehicle, but they built one. They’ve taken their best guess at how many seats it should have and how big it should be. I think it’s harder than that.”

Olson is conducting research with 3D-printed vehicles on Michigan’s campus to experiment with different vehicle forms.

“I don’t know right now if we should build one-seat vehicles with a lot of storage or if we should build two or three seaters with no storage or what mix of wheelchair accessible vehicles we should be building,” Olson said.

With 3D printed vehicles, Olson and other researchers can rapidly create and experiment with new forms of vehicles.

The vehicles that Olson will start testing on won’t be perfectly autonomous. Olson says the idea is to “fake” the autonomy so that they can move past the autonomous challenge, and work on other issues that will need resolved with self-driving vehicles.

“Human acceptance is a major problem,” Olson said. “If we don’t start looking at some of these human factors issues, we’re going to end up building a system that is not going to be accepted and it will fail.”