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Three ways autonomous vehicles will impact families

Smart Design’s Jasper Dekker explores how AVs could change the way families travel and interact, and encourage more households to shift from car ownership to sharing.


The question of who will win the autonomous vehicles (AVs) race is much-discussed, with analysis and opinion about technical capabilities, car manufacturers versus tech companies, and more. As designers, we’re often drawn to the human questions and what is even less certain at the moment is not only how human beings will use AVs, but also why.


Building on the growing notion of mobility-as-a-service (MaaS), if there are more shared vehicles and therefore fewer vehicles on the road and parked in our cities, the benefits start to become clear. Let’s explore a particular human segment: the family.


AVs and families


Smart Design has been working in the mobility space for well over a decade. Recently we explored the use of AVs in suburban neighbourhoods, and the group that surfaced with the strongest needs and showed the biggest potential for having their lives transformed as not individuals, but households – particularly those with young children.


Households with young children hold on to their cars, even in the denser urban areas where car ownership is not only expensive but also impractical. The reason for this is not necessarily convenience, but actual need. Cars are seen as the only solution to get from A to B, with many members of the household depending on the one driving.


Households with young children hold on to their cars. The reason for this is not necessarily convenience, but actual need.


Children and elderly parents are often not independent or able to move about by themselves. Safety is a concern here so the generation in the middle, the children’s parents or carers, often take on the role of the family ‘taxi driver’ – a concept many can relate to.


For these families, the car can also be a space which stores clothes, sports equipment, food or anything needed for travelling with young children. It is also a space where the family spends time together. The car is basically an extension of the home. Conversely, it can also be a space people choose to get away – but either way, it’s certainly very personal.


Now, what if we fast forward in time and insert AVs into this scenario? Spending three weeks with these households and sketching out potential use cases with them led to a vast amount of insights and opportunities. Here are our three favourites:


From drivers to orchestrators


Imagine a family road trip. The typical role of the parents is in the front driving, navigating and attending to the children. Children sit in the back and entertain themselves, mostly. If we take the act of driving and navigating out of the equation, the parents can dedicate as much attention and energy to the children as they like or need.


The layout of the vehicle could change to a circle where all members of the household are equal and face each other as they travel. A moveable configuration could also allow families to opt for privacy or design the car in such a way that caters for those suffering from motion sickness.


To further stretch the scale of privacy versus social interaction, we can start to imagine two or more smaller, but separate, vehicles following each other closely as if they were one.


Sometimes quality time doesn’t mean that everyone travels in the same space. It might also mean that while the children can entertain themselves or need to sleep, the parents take this opportunity to spend time with each other or get some rest!


As this may not be required on a regular basis, smaller pod-like vehicles could exist as a subscription or on-demand model similar to ordering an Uber or Lyft today.


Smaller pod-like vehicles could exist as a subscription or on-demand model similar to ordering an Uber or Lyft today.


The overall theme here is that AVs will liberate parents from their multi-tasking role when travelling with their children. They will become the orchestrators of the journey – configuring it in order to hit ‘go’ and using the travel time as they wish.

The circle of independence

As well as driving their children around, we saw plenty of parents also taking care of the mobility needs of their less-abled parents, relatives or friends. The individual needs for both the generation preceding and succeeding them create scheduling pains and ultimately remove their own independence.


As a result, the children and their grandparents are limited to the journeys the driver can provide.


AVs can ultimately provide a triple-win for the independence of family members. As the older generation of the family starts to lose their mobility independence, they increasingly rely on their children. With access to AVs this generation can maintain their independence as it gives them control over when and where they can go.


The youngest generation can – particularly teenagers – gain the independence of their own car and driving licence much sooner as they will be able to move around in an AV from whatever the legal minimum age will be once they’re legislated.


This, in turn, allows their parents to regain their independence and flexibility as the burden of the school run, after-school activities, or driving their parents to the train station is lowered or removed altogether.


Today, there are many families considering acquiring or having already acquired a second car to address their conflicting mobility challenges. The use of taxis is also popular as an alternative to a second car. The current thinking is that, initially, AVs will be rolled out in large fleets of shared taxi-like vehicles to ensure a cost-effective offering for consumers.


The premise here is that they will compete with or even be cheaper than taxis today as they lack a human driver. This makes independent mobility accessible for a much larger group of people that can subsequently end their car-ownership.


Parenting in connected mobility


Assuming we live in a time when AVs are technically capable of safely driving a human from A to B, it still might not be enough for most parents to feel comfortable letting their children travel on their own or with friends. Part of driving around children is about being in control of their safety.


Building on mobile technology, this control and the inherent peace of mind can be extended when children travel on their own. As parents, one can keep track of the journey’s progress on a mobile app or simply get a message once the child has reached school.


Ultimately, parents could go as far as seeing a live video feed from inside the vehicle.


Also, depending on the children’s ages, parents could be in control of the booking of a journey or choosing the route, or perhaps for older children, approving a booking made by them.


You can imagine a family plan for mobility, not dissimilar to what telecom providers and on-demand content providers such as Netflix offer. All members can benefit from a single account with one person administering.


This presents an opportunity: parental controls for mobility. The control over where their children can go, at what time of day, or with whom, allows parents to gradually open them up to new responsibilities and experiences.


Alternatively, a mileage allowance could be set to provide the freedom but with a cap so that AV rides become conscious decisions. You can imagine a family plan for mobility, not dissimilar to what telecom providers and on-demand content providers such as Netflix offer. All members can benefit from a single account with one person administering.


Ultimately, vehicles will always be required as a household utility. With the rise of AVs, and a digital access layer for them, this will not only be continued – but enriched.


A well-designed system that takes all the members of a household or family into account allows people to move away from ownership into an optimisable access model to benefit everyone.


The research leading to this article was supported by Haley Rasmussen.


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