Suggesting driverless cars could be built from lighter, less protective materials on the premise that in an autonomous car the chances of a crash are zero is hardly likely to attract buyer acceptance of such radical technologies but that is exactly the thinking of some firms at the cutting edge of developing systems and technologies to create such vehicles.
It has been widely assumed that it will be software and sensing equipment that will be the major beneficiaries of tech investment and they will see the most rapid change but as the technology becomes more widely accepted it will be intriguing to see to what extent it impacts car design and the use of construction materials.
Already, minor changes are taking place such as the loss of rear view wing mirrors on concept cars such as Nissan’s Q80 Infiniti revealed at the Paris Motor Show according to a recent FT article, and Volkswagen’s XL1, already on sale in mainland Europe which has camera-based wing mirrors. The desire to lose weight from vehicles makes designing them without heavy crash protection cages an attractive proposition from a design point of view but it’s not just roll cages that could come under review.
Lower fuel consumption will continue to drive the use of lighter materials such as the preference for aluminum over steel, but could it open the possibility of plastics over aluminum? Further fuel savings could be achieved by downsizing engines the articles suggests, simply on the basis that if you are not driving the car do you really care if it has a 2.5-liter engine or a 1.5-liter engine, you may be barely aware of the journey anyway if you are not watching where you are going or receiving any feedback from the driving process. Driver preference for larger engines are rarely based on the premise it will get me to my destination more quickly, more in the belief it will be more fun to drive.
The case for less protection in the construction of the vehicle will require an overwhelming body of evidence that autonomous vehicles really are safer, not only safer but totally 100% safe. Metal suppliers to the automotive sector probably have little to worry about for the foreseeable future but adoption of the support technologies is happening so fast that it is only a matter of time before autonomous vehicles are available for sale, at which point the concept of traveling in a car will change and, with it, the shape and the design priorities. Who knows what that will bring. Intriguing options could be here sooner than we think.