Audi Project was done during ME310 course at Aalto University. It is a global product development and innovation course where students from at least two different universities from around the world work together on a project provided by a corporate sponsor. Those sponsors and partner schools vary, but usually are global companies, such as: Audi, Unicef, UBS, ABB, Bayer... while partners can be any university from the SUGAR Network.
This particular project was done between Stanford and Aalto University and lasted for eight months, after which the final prototype was displayed at the exhibition at Stanford University. The team was consisted of seven students with various skills. Three engineers from Stanford, two engineers, a designer and a business student from Aalto University.
Audi gave us a challenging brief: "Design the interior of an autonomous vehicle in the year of 2025." Since nobody had any previous knowledge of the topic, the initial phase of the course was used to get a better understanding of the subject in question. We quickly identified that in order to predict what the interior of the cars will look like in the future, we need to also understand the changes that will happen to our daily lives and also in peoples' mindset. Current car users will not be the same as the one in 2025. Audi drivers in that year will be people who are approximately our age at the moment and even younger (15-30), since the average age of Audi drivers is 65. The values we have are completely different than the ones from our parents. We grew up in technology, among computers and software. We believe in recycling and preserving rain forests. Multitasking is something that is normal for us, but it is unbearable for many of our parents. Such insights have to be taken into consideration when creating futuristic concept.
The fastest way to learn something completely new is to find an expert who can briefly tell you what you need to consider. We started by interviewing everyone who we believed had more knowledge of the subject and that wasn't very hard to find. We interviewed professional drivers, pilots, car designers, transportation researchers, car enthusiasts, daily commuters, passengers, Audi engineers... pretty much everyone who we thought had some valuable insights to give us.
Since design is not done in house but interacting with users, we immediately started to also create first prototypes that we could go out and test with people. First question that rose up was weather people would trust autonomous vehicles and is it possible to actually concentrate and do something while being driven. To simulate that situation, we rented a van and equipped it whiteboard, table and chairs and created a meeting room inside of a vehicle. It was not completely legal, but we counted on the "we are students, we don't know" card. The meeting inside the van was a great success. We had a normal discussion and we quickly forgot that we were in the van and completely focused on the topic of the meeting. It showed us that it is possible to do something in the car while being moved and that trust might not be an issue. That was just the beginning and we were soon making at least one prototype per week.
When making quick and dirty prototypes, you really need to be creative and not spend too much time polishing something that is not vital for the learnings you want to get out of that prototype. Every prototype is meant for testing and learning, and every concept can be reduced to one critical function or experience that makes that concept special. Basically if that function fails, the entire concept has no value. That is the function or experience you need to test first. We approached every prototype with this mindset. If you can't do anything in the car because you don't trust it, all the concepts that are assuming you doing something in the vehicle fall out. Simple as that. Then, the trust is the main problem we need to address. You don't need to build the actual autonomous vehicle to test that, you can simulate the experience. That is what we did. Soon, we tested motion sickness, transition between driving and autonomous and many more things.
During the testing one of the prototypes, we realized that passengers would want to change body positions and do various activities in the car, since they are able to do that for the first time. Facilitating those body movements and transitions is very difficult in such a compact space. That was the main problem we identified and we decided to focus on solving it.
Transition included multiple functions. It included driving, transition between driving and autonomous and changing body positions between different actions. In order to properly design the interior, we needed to lock down the assumptions that we believed are most likely to happen regarding how the world is going to look like and will people work in the future.
According to our research, families in developed world are getting smaller with people having one to no children. That trend will increase as the world is getting more and more connected and developed. Therefore there is no need for more than three seats in the car. Even today, the majority of vehicles are one person vehicles.
People are going to work in the car, since commuting and remote working will be more present. The way how we believe the work will be conducted is a combination between gesture and voice control, with occasionally having a touch surface that will be used for some precise commands. Since windshield is not needed as a window to the world anymore with all the sensors and autonomous driving, it will change into an interactive VR display that will be controlled by the driver.
Since the cars will be electrical, the big engine in the front is not needed anymore, which leaves room for a large windshield that occupies the entire front of the car. Engines are going to be next to each wheel, controlling them separately.
Driving was seen by Audi as one of the functions of the car that will be preserved. It is also part of the global brand strategy as a sporty car brand. We decided to push this to extreme. If the cars are equipped with sensors and all the cars are connected in one network of vehicles, then in theory you can drive as fast as you wish without the risk of an accident. The car will communicate and predict everything and intervene if it is needed. It will let you drive, but only give you an illusion of control and not actual control. If you are going straight to the wall, it will brake by itself. With this assumption in mind, we continued developing our final solution.
We had different ideas on how to solve the transition problem. By removing the front passenger seat, we gained a lot of space for the movement of the driver. This led us to another problem. How to facilitate the body movements in the chair if the driver wants to rest or, face the back of the vehicle and socialize with other passengers. One solution is to have a normal office chair, but it had some set backs. It moved freely, meaning that it will also move while driving and not only while being driven, It required some lock mechanism and the space was just not big enough for complete freedom of movements. Those movements needed to be controlled. We decided to build a sophisticated seat that has inbuilt sensors which sense your natural body movements. If you want to turn, you just start turning and the chair will follow. The same principal is for adjusting the back rest or the closeness of the seat with the dashboard. By putting constant pressure on the back rest for more than three seconds, it will start to decline and by pushing your feet forward (The same movement how you move your office chair back) you actually move the seat away from the dashboard. The movements were very intuitive and all the users learned them very quickly and loved the experience. The only thing left was to design how the actual transition between driving and autonomous mode will be conducted.
We had many ideas that we tested for this specific task. Eventually we built two interiors that we tested simultaneously. One included pushing the wheel away from you when you want the car to take control and pulling it towards you when you want to start manual driving, while the other had a more fun experience where you simple take the steering wheel off when you want the car to take control. The steering wheel was magnetically connected in the second solution and it accompanied a touch surface on it that could be used as a control device when the steering wheel is not in its primary use.
Testing clearly showed that the second solution was way too confusing for the users. They all loved the fact that they can take the steering wheel off as a cleat indication that they don't want to drive, but nobody knew what to do with the wheel when it was off. For us it was a clear sign that the other solution is just more usable at the moment and we needed to make tough calls since the end of the project was coming fast.
Final prototype was built to show the functionality of the chair and the movement of the steering wheel that initiated autonomous driving and unlocked the seat. The interior around the seat and the steering wheel was designed as such to give the sense of being in the futuristic car for the users and to be a nice exhibition booth for the show at Stanford. The chair and the steering wheel functioned perfectly and people were cueing to try driving and sitting in an autonomous vehicle of 2025. People from Audi were also very impressed and invited us to present to all Audi and Volkswagen personnel in Silicon Valley. They kept the chair and the steering wheel and offered us internships at their company. Nobody accepted the offer. We all had other plans.
Biggest learning from this course was that you can't sit and do design without interacting with users constantly. We all live in our little bubbles and we believe that all the others think like us. They don't. I can't express how many times I was shocked on how much I was wrong in my predictions on how users will react. You just don't know until you actually go out and test. It can be only cardboard and duct tape, but it still gives you valuable insights that you simply can't obtain by siting inside. Another important learning was the value of communication. This project included remote working with students from completely different backgrounds and it is vital for you to understand how other professionals think and reason. Business students see the world differently than designers or engineers and that is the thru value of interdisciplinary teams. Understanding the language of business and engineering is crucial for every designer. The next years I spent learning business.