ROME — “What if steering wheels were prohibited on all public roads by 2040?” asks Michael Robinson, CEO of Italy-based ED Design (formed out of the wreckage of former coachwork giant Bertone). “Auto architecture would completely change.” Getting rid of the wheel — and the dashboard, too, probably, on a self-driving car would free stylists to reimagine the automobile as something not specifically oriented to looking at the road. And that’s precisely what Robinson is doing, showing images at the Belron Automotive Trends conference here of auto interiors that looked more like living rooms — with front seat passengers facing their counterparts in the rear.

poster of autonomous cars without steering wheels

Instead of the glass windows cars have had since they were introduced, Robinson imagines OLED screens that could show the news, a movie or become transparent (for the view) at a touch of the mobile phone. “Instead of a congested road, you could be looking at an aquarium,” he said.

Lexus shows off a self-driving car at the 2013 CES show in Las Vegas.

Lexus shows off a self-driving car at the 2013 CES show in Las Vegas. (Photo: Michael Kwan/Flickr)

The autonomous car is definitely happening, but probably not until all cars can talk to each other and get out of each other’s way. Maybe that will take until 2030 or 2040 — it’s a change akin to moving from horses to automobiles at the turn of the last century. But it certainly makes sense to start thinking about what it all means for what cars will look like, and how we’ll use them.

Face to face seating

“The statistics tell us that 1.2 million people die globally in car accidents every year,” Robinson said. “And that figure could double as China moves into private cars. But can we imagine zero car accidents and no deaths by 2050? What if we set out to solve a car problem and end up saving the world? And if cars don’t crash anymore, will we even need auto insurance?”

That was a provocative thought, particularly at a conference attended by many insurance agents. Also out of work, perhaps, would be chauffeurs, traffic cops, stoplight designers, toll takers (it will all be done electronically) and body shops. Road builders would still be in business, though.

Nissan also has an autonomous car program

Nissan also has an autonomous car program. The company thinks the first vehicles will be on the road in 2020. (Photo: Mmcmaxi/Flickr)

Robinson imagines an “intelligent digital chauffeur” he called Ambrogio (the name comes from an Italian builder of robotic landmowers), equipped with a “profound user database” or PUD. He (or she) would “understand ambiguous requests.” Like Samantha, the sentient operating system in the movie "She," Ambrogio would “get” you. And those out-of-work chauffeurs? They’ll end up working for think-tanks teaching virtual Ambrogios how to drive and interact with customers, Robinson said. A whole lot of jobs will have to be reinvented.

Ambrogio would probably travel with you, remember your settings, but the car might not. Robinson imagines we’ll be buying travel experiences, not cars. Instead of going to the garage, we’ll tell Ambrogio to get us transportation, and then take it away when we’re done. It will be kind of like car rental, but billed monthly like electric or water.

How eliminating external glass will change automotive architecture

The self-driving car would become a mobile office, and that presents design challenges. One imagines two rows of office-type chairs facing a central hard-mounted desk, much like certain Amtrak seating today. It makes sense, if you’ve seen the statistics on lost work time to traffic congestion.

Maybe we’re falling out of love with cars, anyway. Robinson points out that all those Chinese taking to the roads prefer to buy long-wheelbase cars and sit in the back while the chauffeur drives. And young people are also turned off to the experience, preferring to play with their mobile devices. Automakers are really worried about that, which is why they’re lavishing attention on infotainment systems that connect to phones.

Robinson laments that Google’s self-driving cars “aren’t sexy. It’s 2040 tech with a 2004 design.” He projects an image of a Lamborghini, one model he has for the autonomous car of the future. There’s no reason it has to look like an appliance, even if we end up treating it like one. “If cars are boring, we won’t use them,” he said. “The sexiness has to go back in after the steering wheel comes out.”

For Robinson, the timetable sees driverless cars becoming mandatory around 2040, and Google outselling Ford by 2050.

google self-driving car

Google could be the self-driving car leader — it's certainly making the most noise in the space. (Photo: Andre Torrez/Flickr)

The California-born, Italy-resident Robinson thinks automakers are poor custodians of our mobile future. They’re introducing incremental changes, like lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control, instead of fully embracing the “paradigm jump” of what cars could be. Tomorrow’s cars might come out of Google or Apple instead, he said. Those companies are already taking over today’s digital dashboard.

Kjell Nordstrom, an economic futurist and the author of "Karaoke Economics," also spoke at the Belron conference, and is sanguine about self-driving cars, but he thinks how we use them will be affected by our urban future. “In 2006, for the first time we had more people living in cities than in the countryside,” he said. “We’re at 53 percent urban now, but we’re headed to 70 percent by 2030.” City residents won’t have garages, and will be even less inclined to own cars than tomorrow’s suburbanites.

Nordstrom thinks self-driving cars are coming, but not immediately. “With every technology, we overestimate the significance in the beginning.” He points to the Nokia mobile phones in his native Finland, which started off slowly, then exploded.

Dr. Chris Davies of Belron Technical is also bullish. “I definitely think we’ll have self-driving cars,” he said. “The technology has already proven itself. It’s important for cars to talk to each other, and software platforms have to be compatible.”

No doubt that the autonomous take-up won’t happen overnight. As Davies points out, there’d be a nightmare on the roads if cars can’t communicate with each other — a process known as vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V. A collision-free world is dependent on 100-percent connected cars.

And Robinson acknowledges that although the technology is probably ready today, bureaucratic delays and arguments over legislation will hamper the adoption. “There is the huge problem of governments,” he said. But while they’re holding their hearings, we can try to rethink the car.

Here's some CNET video on the challenges and opportunities of self-driving cars:

Related on MNN:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Self-driving cars are closer than you think
Autonomous vehicles may sound like science-fiction, but the technology exists now. Here's a look at our hands-free future.