How Autonomous Driving Will Impact the Concept of Road Trips

The age of the autonomous vehicle is in its nascent stages. Currently, from freeways to autobahns to kōsokudōro, the road trip is the definition of a user controlled travel experience. Is there space for autonomous vehicles in this experience at all?

One fundamental question is – what is the role of connected and autonomous driving systems for leisure travel? Stephanie Söhnchen’s original article, a great read by the way, touched on how autonomous driving impacts enjoyment for drivers. Will it improve or degrade our satisfaction in the already somewhat stressful driving experience?

In order to illustrate that a delve deeper dive into a specific scenario is helpful: the road trip. The road trip conjures up an idea that is distinct from something passive like a cross-country train ride for instance. There is an implied sense of activity, ownership and control.

The road trip has been the subject of the video game “Road Trip Adventure” and various apps and a sprawl of road trip hacking tools. The road trip itself is seemingly personified and immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”. Is there a place for autonomous vehicles here?

A great deal of the conversation around connected transportation revolves around matters of immediacy: getting from point A to point B. Commuting, high density population areas, etc. What is missing, however, are the roads less traveled, windy, and perhaps to no place in particular.

The Special parameters of a road trip in the context of autonomous driving

How do you design a spontaneous road trip – or better how can we define an intelligently curated road trip that uses data to foster something a little more intentional than serendipity.

The balance of autonomous driving for leisure travel perhaps hinges on two primary human needs: control and pleasure. This indicates that autonomous driving in fact may need a more nuanced approach for adopting it not only for leisure purposes, but the overall state of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) that boils down to a simple tenet of human psychology:

We need to feel we are in control of our own pleasure, while simultaneously having the option to relinquish control at our own will, if necessary, to increase pleasure.

There is an anecdote about the ‘birth of the automobile’. During the time when people still traveled via horse carriages, they likely would have asked for further horses to increase their speed. It was not fathomable, initially, that a completely new method would solve the need to increase the speed and access to mobility – as well as make it a more pleasurable experience overall.

Similarly the solution to making driving more pleasurable may not in fact be erasing the steering wheel and brake pedal from the interior of cars. The solution may be a bit more nuanced, perhaps manual controls need to be an option based on what the user wants to do at a given moment, rather than forced action or passivity.

Creating a new paradigm for autonomous road trips

As proven just this year the mechanics of a cross-country road trip are not just a mere possibility – future mobility concepts are already being refined. On March 22nd a 3,500 mile trek began between the Golden Gate Bridge to New York, 99 percent of which was completely autonomous.

The wealth of information from that single trek will be invaluable towards launching autonomous cars that respond to a myriad of driving conditions, roadways, infrastructure indicators such as road markings for instance. The single trip has amassed a recorded three terabytes of data – not to mention a few colorful “responses” from fellow drivers.

Despite the tomes of data and the occasional angry responses from aggressive drivers who seemed to take exception to the vehicle’s judicious adherence to speed limits, all the information about the driving experience could not be collected after all:

What exactly was it like inside the cabin? It is easy to imagine the passenger for this maiden road trip was part driver, part observer, part engineer.

This is not the typical leisure traveler, so the deeper level of how this feels in everyday use, let alone long-range use is a nebulous space at the moment. There is not much insight just yet into how allowing the car to drive 99 percent of a 3,500 mile trek feels or even if allowing it to drive 99 percent of the time is the only metric that matters.

In this case of mechanics the metric of success was arguably that the less a human is required to drive, the better. But how do you measure success for a leisure and enjoyment focused road trip as it applies to humans? There seems to be three indicators of success for autonomous options for various personal travel personas:

Three key factors to move people to embrace autonomous driving

Accessibility, Adoption and Expanding markets – Does this make travel more affordable? Does it cater to a market between mass long distance travel like greyhound buses, trains, and airplanes? Does it empower people with physical or other accessibility challenges? Does it create new markets and opportunities based on its existence that indicate fulfillment?

Discovery and Interaction – Does the vehicle help the leisure road trip lover to find more points of interest? Does it inspire new ways for the user to interact with the environment surrounding the passenger?

Driving the Desire to Drive – even, and perhaps especially, when it is not necessary – does the autonomous car make the passenger want to tangible take part of controlling the process of selecting where to go all the way down to the mechanics of actually driving?

While this seems to turn the concept and purpose of having an autonomous vehicle on its head – this is about a leisure experience for human beings which presents a range of motivations that are not purely logical “point A to point B”.

Do you “want” to drive through the Sierra Nevada to “feel” the road? May be you want the autonomous car to take a selfie for you as you drive through the South of France?

The purpose here is not merely utilitarian; it reaches more into a aspirational and even social sharing context. While the numbers in this metric may appear to counter the quantitative value of an autonomous car, parsing that against when the user elects to drive, why they are electing to drive and what is or is not being requested of the vehicle at this time will be key in measuring what constitutes a successful, automated, connected leisure trip on the road.

How do you think autonomous driving will change the concept of road trips and what would you like to see happen?

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.