Design is the key to the self-driving challenge

Design is the key to the self-driving challenge

Local Motors, a startup based in Phoenix that builds autonomous slow-moving shuttles, has been learning a lot from the seven or so shuttles it’s deployed so far.

This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter running Tuesdays.

Companies are paying millions of dollars to hire self-driving vehicle engineers. But it’s the designers — developing the experience around the interaction between vehicles and humans — who could be the key to how smoothly (or not) autonomous vehicles enter society.

Over the past few years, the tech industry has started to realize the importance of design, and the need to recruit designers to their organizations to work on key products. This has become particularly important as technology becomes attached to our bodies, engages in conversations with us and predicts our thoughts and actions.  

And now that it’s clear that computers eventually will drive most of our vehicles, designers will help determine how these computer-driven vehicles will interact with passengers, other drivers and pedestrians. Of particular importance right now, in this time of transition to autonomous vehicles, is how the "monitoring" driver will interact and engage with the autonomous system. 

That’s an interaction design challenge, and we’ve seen questionable design choices in some systems, such as Tesla’s Autopilot.

Local Motors, a startup based in Phoenix that builds autonomous slow-moving shuttles, has been learning a lot from the seven or so shuttles it’s deployed so far. Over the next 12 months, the company plans to have 60 or so shuttles (called Ollis) launched at places such as universities, event centers, hotels and theme parks.

Local Motors CEO and co-founder Jay Rogers tells me many design tweaks that the company has incorporated into its shuttles focus on the interactions between passengers and the Olli system, as well as interactions between pedestrians and the Olli equipment. At this early stage, we need to "engage people in autonomy," Rogers said.

The team tweaked Olli to better enable communication between passengers, making sure that Olli’s auditory system doesn’t get in the way of human conversation. Local Motors is working on figuring out the best way to create non-distracting communication between the monitoring-driver and the passengers. "We’re learning what that interaction is," Rogers said.

Slow-moving autonomous shuttles such as Olli could be the first self-driving vehicles that many people encounter. AAA launched one in Las Vegas this year, and the group is learning similar lessons. Creating an environment that makes passengers and pedestrians feel safe is of great importance.

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