Self-Driving Cars Shouldn’t Look Like Regular Cars

Cars get interesting when you remove the driver

Key Takeaways

  • Amazon’s Zoox is a self-driving taxi that resembles an old horse-drawn carriage.
  • Didi Chuxing—the 'Chinese Uber'—has developed its own vehicle.
  • Giant cars designed for gas are just too big for electric power, but the public charging infrastructure isn’t here yet.
The Amazon Zoox self-driving taxi in a purple and blue light

Why are electric cars as big and heavy as gas-powered cars? And why do self-driving cars have all their seats pointing forward? Answer: because that’s how it is.

Until now, electric cars and self-driving vehicles have been novelties. They’re experimental flavors of regular, human-steered, gas-powered vehicles. But that’s changing. Instead of just using a computer to turn the steering wheel and operate the pedals, vehicles are morphing to better fit their purposes. But it may take a while to get there. After all, it's one thing buying an electric car, but another keeping it charged.

"I’d guess more than 50% of Americans wouldn’t have reliable access to charging stations right now," John Brownlee, editor at Folks magazine, told Lifewire via Twitter, "even if the price of an electric car were no object."

Let’s check out a few of these radical new designs.

Throwback Tech

Do you remember the Johnny Cab robot taxi from the movie Total Recall? Today’s self-driving cars are like that: regular cars, with regular controls, only they can also be piloted by a computer. That’s a waste of space, and it’s mostly down to the fact that a human has to sit in the driver’s seat and concentrate enough to spot danger and take over.

If you were designing a self-driving vehicle from scratch, it would end up resembling a cabin on a railroad car. There would be no manual controls, so passengers could sit facing each other. And because there would be no human driver breaking the speed limit, there would be no need for speed-related design features. In a city where no human-steered cars are allowed, these automatic vehicles could be smaller, and less protected because they wouldn’t crash.

And what about electric cars? Gas vehicles are huge and heavy because they can be. Gas is an extremely efficient way to store energy. Pound for pound, a gas tank can carry way more energy than batteries.

"A subcompact car with a 10-gallon gas tank can store the energy equivalent of 7 Teslas, 15 Nissan Leafs, or 23 Chevy Volts," says consultancy Menlo Energy Economics. 

In this light, putting an electric engine inside a behemoth designed for gas seems absurd. A Tesla is every bit as big and heavy as a regular car. It makes way more sense to design small, lightweight cars for electric power. Two-seaters instead of four, and without all those cup holders.

Amazon’s Zoox Robotaxi

Maybe it takes an internet company with an interest in vehicles (delivery) to break the mold. Amazon’s Zoox is a cute little carriage-style car, with four seats that face each other. There is no forward or reverse; the Zoox can drive in either direction, and four-wheel steering makes it ultra-maneuverable. And this small design doesn’t compromise safety either. 

Interior view of the Amazon Zoox taxi and its seats that face each other

"Building a vehicle from the ground-up has given us the opportunity to reimagine passenger safety, shifting from reactive to proactive measures," Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson said in a statement. Those measures include a special airbag design to suit a bi-directional vehicle.

The D1 Ride-Hailing Car

In China, Uber-vanquishing "ride-hailing" company Didi Chuxing has partnered with electric-vehicle maker BYD to come up with the D1. The D1 is driven by a human, but the vehicle itself is optimized for carrying passengers. First, it has a bunch of warning systems that monitor and harass the driver, including driver-verification, but more interesting is the rest of the car.

Didi Chuxing and BYD's D1 ride-hailing/self-driving car parked on a street as bicyclists ride by
Didi Chuxing / BYD

For instance, the passenger compartment is spacious, making it more comfortable, but also good for people carrying a lot of luggage or shopping. Also great are the sliding side doors, which make for easier entry and also mean the taxi won’t get damaged or cause a crash if a passenger flings the door open without looking. There are also plenty of electronic gizmos for billing and mapping. 

Future Vehicle Design

It’s interesting to consider what vehicles could look like when not forced into the gas-powered-car paradigm. We’re already seeing little electric-assisted, pedal-powered delivery vehicles in cities. In Germany, for example, the mail is delivered on special yellow bikes that can carry a huge load. 

With "ride-hailing" cars and self-driving taxis getting made over, it’s going to be interesting watching our streets transform.

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