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Zen & the Art of Autonomous Car Design

By: Bridget Clerkin February 12, 2018
Today's cars are designed and re-designed to meet consumer demand. In the self-driving world of the future, carmakers may be freed from this cycle.

In Buddhist teachings, it’s called samsara: the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

In Detroit, it’s just known as business as usual.

The Motor City is the ultimate Zen master’s challenge, constantly in a state of branding and building new vehicles to catch the eye—and wallet—of the car-driving public.

But just as Buddhists attempt to escape that cycle of suffering in order to reach nirvana, automakers may now have their own mode of transportation to reach enlightenment: autonomous vehicles.

In a future world where no one drives, individual car ownership may become an idea of the past. Transportation may instead transpire in communal fleets of self-driving vehicles, which will be produced, owned, and operated by auto manufacturers.

The streamlined business model doesn’t just give carmakers more authority over a larger number of vehicles on the road—it frees them from the need to court new customers when making decisions about designing the cars.

Untethered from having to worry about the whims of the public, the companies could theoretically settle on one or two models, skewing designs to be much more drivable than dazzling, with any future “updates” being technological improvements rather than aesthetic enhancements.

The rise of the robocars is anticipated to disrupt much—but could that long list include the endless cycle of inventing new vehicle models?

Accumulation of Dukkha

Designing a car is a long and arduous process, often taking up to 3 years to complete—and including plenty of potential for dukkha, the Sanskrit word for “suffering.”

As with all things built by man, new car models begin their lives as ideas. Designers are prepped on several company goals for the model, and a vigorous round of research ensues, where recent trends—both aesthetic and economic—are examined to help produce the best design possible.

Once a properly penciled-out sketch is rendered, the concept has its first run-in with reality, in a process that usually ends with a lot of eraser marks.

Most major auto manufacturers utilize the idea of "platform sharing" to help streamline the extensive costs of creating a car. Under this business model, a universal set of chassis, bones, and bearings are used as the foundation for any number of vehicles produced by a company.

While one auto could wear a sports car façade and another could masquerade as a minivan, underneath the two could share anything from engines and transmissions to suspensions and brakes. (Many Ford Mustang fans may be surprised to learn that, thanks to platform sharing, the car’s second generation was an essential DNA match with the notoriously explosive Ford Pinto.)

Platform sharing not only contributes to cost savings but also the cycle of manufacturing samsara, with many sketches finding themselves endlessly reformed to fit the pre-made parts, then tweaked yet again when engineers are called in to assess the Frankenstein designs.

After a concept is puzzle-pieced together with the current platform in mind, it assumes solid form with construction of a smaller 3D model. The prototype is used to work out aerodynamic and aesthetic kinks before a full-scale version of the car is built to undergo various vigorous safety tests until the company is satisfied with the design and puts the idea into final production.

But the years-long cycle doesn’t have to repeat forever. In Buddhist teachings, samsara can be overcome by adhering to the Eight-Fold Path, a step-by-step guideline for creating a lifestyle that doesn’t rely on the rhythm of suffering. That ultimate freedom is the path to nirvana.

In auto manufacturing, the process has several more steps, and the end result isn’t the elimination of dukkha, but rather the creation of a reliable self-driving vehicle.

Following the Eight-Fold Path

Some of Detroit’s finest have already taken their first steps on the auto industry’s version of an Eight-Fold Path.

General Motors (GM) announced last year that it had developed the plans for mass-produced self-driving cars, thanks to a reimagined manufacturing process dealing with the vehicles on a holistic level.

While most autonomous autos on the road now are essentially current car models retrofitted with new age equipment, the GM process builds the self-driving car from the ground up, with parts, machines, and processes in place to intentionally cater to the unique aspects of the technologically advanced rides.

New platforms have also been created to help streamline the process, with the underlying parts developed with the placement of new sensors, radar, and other equipment in mind. All told, the vehicles produced on the GM line consist of 40% completely new parts.

The factory is still far from firing up the assembly line (GM said it’s waiting for the approval of federal regulations on self-driving cars before pulling the trigger), but it likely points to a process many others will begin incorporating in the future. And once a baseline of reliable designs for the vehicles has been meted out, the factories can be retooled to build those models exclusively, and auto manufacturers can take a break from worrying about “the next new thing”—at least when it comes to outward appearances.

Reaching Nirvana

Where new-age cars will likely retain some stylistic autonomy is on the inside.

Cars may become places where people “watch a movie or whatever.”—Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo CEO

Without the need to focus on the road, riders will be free to fully enjoy their time in the vehicle—and designers will be released from decades-old limitations, including pointing all seats straight ahead and working around steering wheels and brakes.

Many in the automotive world have already hinted at this new artistic direction, including Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson, who predicted that cars will become places where people “watch a movie or whatever.”

A report commissioned by Intel last year also forecasted the rise of the “passenger economy,” an entirely new economic sector borne of the myriad of new uses for the 250 million hours drivers currently spend inside a vehicle each year. (Among other ideas, the report posited the development of hotel cars, restaurant cars, and an explosion of 3D entertainment.)

Manufacturers may be able to reach nirvana when it comes to car models, but any new-age auto designers may need to brush up instead on their feng shui.

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