On a pre-programmed course in an old airfield in Alameda, Calif., a silverfish-shaped car meanders through a cardboard city full of frozen people and cut-out trees. Here at the edge of Silicon Valley, looking back across the bay at the San Francisco skyline and just minutes from Mercedes-Benz’s Research facility in Sunnyvale, the F 015 “Luxury In Motion” autonomous prototype vehicle makes its way — with the driver's seat comfortably swiveled 180 degrees to face backwards.
It sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, but this is Mercedes-Benz’s vision of the future — the year 2030 to be precise. The F 015 concept is quite literally a living room on wheels. Feel like driving? Swivel your chair and take control of the steering wheel that folds neatly away when not in use. Feel like working, relaxing, or talking? Swivel back around and face your fellow passengers; the car will continue to drive you to your destination. In Mercedes purview, life in the future is no longer about speed, but relaxation and the luxury of time.
While the F 015 is still a prototype, and not yet robust enough to make highway trips like over self-driving test cars, the approach to the design of the vehicle is straight from the pages of Steve Jobs. “Autonomous vehicles make sense because of the increased emphasis on the interaction between occupants," says Koert Groeneveld, head of research and development communications at Merecedes-Benz. "The cities of the future will be bigger, more densely packed and life will be more hectic. Time and private space will become a luxury.”
It’s not only how the car impacts and interacts with its passengers, but how the car interacts with the outside world. LEDs in the front and back of the car flash words like “STOP” and “GO” across what would normally feature headlights and taillights. It is polite to a fault, insisting that pedestrians proceed first, projecting a laser outlined crosswalk in front of the car and instructing them verbally to “please cross,” tracking their movement across the field as they go. Mercedes notes that the windows are covered in a subtle dot pattern to keep people from seeing in, but which also limits visibility out.
Carriage doors open to allow easy access to the spacious interior. Seats swivel to welcome you inside and then swivel back to center when the doors are closed, a rolling silver cocoon isolating you from the outside world. Anyone in the car can become the “conductor,” choosing the interior look, feel, and speed of the car as it moves along. Slide a mark along a linear gauge and you can speed or slow the car. Change the scenery on the screens around you to Paris and the Louvre or abstract representations of the outside world by touching the screen and making a choice for your bubbles of virtual reality. The extreme soapbar physical design of the F 015 is centered on what Mercedes-Benz calls “soft transitions” — an easing back into reality, or out of it, as you move from your autonomous vehicle to your next destination.
The F 015 we conducted was solely electric-powered, and followed a GPS-plotted course showing what Mercedes imagines a typical interaction between car and human would look like. The driver summons the car from its parking spot using an app on their phone and waits patiently while the car comes to them (a feature Tesla has promised with the next major software update of the Model S sedan.) Then he or she climbs in and is whisked (albeit in this test case, slowly) away to their destination where the car then parks itself until the next time it is called.
It's obvious the technology that Mercedes-Benz has employed to create both the S500 Intelligent Drive and the F 015 prototype is phenomenal. The idea of auto autopilot for urban driving is incredibly appealing, and driving a car via smartphone feels like a Star Trek-level fantasy finally coming to life. But I'm not sure whether to feel inspired, scared, or both.
That world of 2030 seems implicitly dystopian, where luxury means isolation. In this vision, drivers and passengers are surrounded by an augmented reality of their own choosing — a world in which the car communicates with the outside world, and humans don’t. The other way of looking toward 2030 would see time as the precious commodity. Those who can afford it can find a space to freely do what they like, and not worry over the city-driving dullness of steering, accelerating, watching for pedestrians or braking.
In 15 to 20 years, do we become so wrapped up our own worlds that we won't be interested in interacting with the outside world? Will we not want to make eye contact with a passerby, let alone wave them to cross? Will we become so busy and self-important that we have to send the car to pick up the kids at school — as some overscheduled parents have already enlisted Uber drivers to do?
The F 015 presents a fascinating look at the future of driving and the almost-there technology involved in making it work. We are either moving toward a more crowded, isolated, self-centered world, or one that’s greener, safer and more connected than ever. We’ll just have to wait a few more years to find out — fewer than we realize.