Self-driving cars will look different: for one, no man-eating grilles

March 7, 2017

Without an internal combustion engine, without a transmission, without a radiator, tomorrow's cars won't need to look like the cars we know today.

What will they look like?

Volkswagen says the self-driving cars of tomorrow won't have angry, man-eating faces, for one.

At the 2017 Geneva motor show, Volkswagen rolled out its Sedric, its first fully electric, self-driving car concept. Capable of Level 5 autonomous driving, the Sedric maps out how Volkswagen will develop cars that can accelerate, brake, and steer themselves.

Sedric has no pedals or steering wheel. Driving commands can be spoken, and passengers can sleep or eat or read or watch movies on the LED-screen windshield, while Sedric handles the transportation. 

Sedric's look, says VW brand chief designer Klaus Bischoff, will kick off a new design language for the company—to make the best of its first shot at a new era of automobiles.

Bischoff's goal is to give self-driving cars a more friendly, sympathetic appearance.

"They shouldn't be aggressive," he says. "We don't want to come up with grilles that appear [to] eat you up."

He's referring, of course, to the massive grilles that have been a visual greeting from cars since the first ones moved under their own power, in the 19th century. In the intervening hundred-plus years, the cooling needs of cars have grown exponentially; so have grilles, especially on SUVs that use them as a signature symbol of strength.

Volkswagen Group Sedric concept, 2017 Geneva auto show

Volkswagen Group Sedric concept, 2017 Geneva auto show

Liberation movement

Chucking the grille isn't the only step, of course. Self-driving cars will be electric cars, which means thin battery packs under the vehicle will take the place of complex systems that dominate the shape and form of today's cars, everything from the long front ends that house powerful V-8 engines, to the transmission tunnels that divide cockpits.

"Interior design today [has] a working area for the driver, like a plane cockpit, full of switches," he says. "You're riding along and you're working."

This new era of cars gives designers like Bischoff the liberty to toss out all sorts of design relics that have lingered in cars long past their need.

It gives them license to make a complete break with the past, especially inside the car.

"We're going for a completely new interior architecture," he says. "Clean, very tidy, very pure."

Volkswagen's cockpits in future self-driving cars will concentrate on reducing the confusing array of controls presented to today's drivers.

"We will reduce to a max," he says. "Everything that is not needed, out."

Bischoff describes car interiors of the future—vehicles coming as soon as the start of the next decade—that will eschew control levers and wheels for exotic features such as a new generation of head-up technology fused with augmented reality.

The new cockpits will be anything but cockpits. They will be more like lounges, where the driver sits inside, flicks a start button, and goes, with the car taking over most of the task of driving.

"Not meaning it is not fun," he says.

Volkswagen Group Sedric concept, 2017 Geneva auto show

Volkswagen Group Sedric concept, 2017 Geneva auto show

Getting there is expensive

The myriad issues facing electric and self-driving cars range from driving range, to battery design, to infrastructure maintenance, to mass adoption.

Those aren't little issues, but Volkswagen executives believe the world is at an electric-car tipping point, with major markets from Europe to China putting huge investments and policy decisions behind electrification.

They're not alone. Automakers around the globe, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, even Aston Martin and Bentley, now see the future clearly revolving around electric cars.

Volkswagen had already dipped its toe in electrification; its diesel-emissions scandal has had the effect of forcing investment and research overwhelmingly in favor of electric cars.

Executives believe their company is uniquely positioned to prosper in the electric-car era. With knowledge built on exercises like today's VW e-Golf, they predict their ability to design a brand-new electric-vehicle architecture, dubbed MEB, and to make powerful battery cells in volume will be better than any rival.

That, he says, gives VW the best chance to bring electrification to the masses. If it does, the debt owed to electric-car pioneers such as Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S will not be a small one.

Bischoff acknowledges the company has one chance to set the design tone for generations of EVs to come.

"Now is the time to do it, not in the second generation of mobility," he says. "Now is the chance to offer a new sensation to customers, [to] draw them into a new type of mobility."

The only catch?

"You have to have the guts to do so," he says.

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