Google's self-driving car design boss speaks on her strategy

Designing a car that's not for drivers


As the head of design for Google’s self-driving car program, YooJung Ahn has figured out how to design a car for people who aren’t the least bit interested in driving. She oversaw the design of the company’s autonomous car prototype, the first car being tested publicly without a steering wheel or pedals.

The challenge is that people who will ride in the Google car aren’t drivers, they are users. That beginning premise has framed everything about the design program for the Google car, since it launched over seven years ago. And Ahn’s experience has been at the center of it.

"We tried not to consider the product as one more car on the road. That’s the last thing we wanted to do," Ahn told me earlier this month. "We want to switch the paradigm."

Google has been mum about its process for building and operating self-driving cars, and has even made the name of its self-driving car arm Alphabet, and research being done at X, hard to pin down. We know that Google cars have covered over 2 million miles and that the public face of the Google self-driving project, Chris Urmson, recently left the company.The Verge has ridden in several of Alphabet’s self-driving cars as the technology has evolved. As of September, Google had 34 prototype vehicles and 24 Lexus RX450h SUVs on the road.

We know that Google isn’t a car company — at least yet — and doesn’t need to sell cars in order to exist.

But after Google received the Red Dot Luminary Award a prestigious international award in the design community, for its prototype of the self-driving car, the company reached out to let me know that Ahn was available for a phone interview. The Red Dot jury praised the Google car for the innovative nature of its design, but also for its spaciousness, elegance, and simplicity; the car is being displayed at the Red Dot Museum in Singapore. "It was the design for the very first prototype and it wasn’t style-oriented," Ahn tells me. "We were very happy, because people understood the way we think. They understood what we are trying to do, to push that design for the bigger mission — how can we change mobility?

As Ahn’s profile is raised in the public eye, there will be much talk about how she isn’t trained as a traditional car designer, and how as a woman, she’s in a small esteemed group of female lead designers. And perhaps, because she didn’t grow up dreaming of designing cars, she is distinct. But what she does share with other car designers, many of whom have also worked in product design studios, is that she is determined to solve problems through design strategy. And by landing at Google as it makes strides in the automotive arena, she is presented with a unique opportunity as the Mountain View company reveals its vision for the future. (Ahn is now leading Google’s autonomous design of the Chrysler Pacifica.)

Ahn was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. She began painting as a kid and settled on her aspirations to become a designer when she was a teenager. She studied industrial design at Hong-Ik University and earned a master’s degree in design methods and strategies from the Illinois Institute of Technology. She worked for Motorola and LG Electronics before Google. She joined the self-driving design team in 2012 and was given the lead role in 2013. "As a product designer, I had a lot of advantages," she says. "Senior [car] designers know so much that they cannot get outside of the box easily. Since I did not know much about how car design works, we focused on maximum visibility, technology, safety, and what the user’s needs were while we were designing."

She’s certainly not interested in mimicking any preconceived standards about what makes a car cool, which is likely why Google chose her to the lead the program, to avoid falling into any well-worn patterns. But her background in mobile product is becoming more common in car company design studios, such as BMW, Fiat Chrysler, and Ford, which are actively recruiting from other industries. The makeup of her team shares much in common with the traditional car outfit. She works with industrial designers, CAD modelers, prototypers, and color and material designers.

Like the typical designer, she has an eye. She says her personal style is minimalist, but she is adamant that her taste doesn’t define her process. "I try not to focus on my personal aesthetics. Personally I like simple design and I don’t like frills or unnecessary details," she says. When I ask her about how her artistry is reflected in her process, she pauses, and instead spoke to her larger mission. "After designing products for years, I realized that designers need to think fundamentally about what will actually change people’s lives."

Ahn tells me repeatedly that safety is key to making the Google car. In the early days of self-driving cars, riders will need to trust the machine over the mind. Research predicts that autonomous cars will eventually make our roads safer and will cut down on the 35,000 traffic deaths that occur in the US every year. But for that prediction to come true, first consumers have to be willing to try them. At this point, most Americans express skepticism and resistance to giving up their control of the steering wheel.

To change that, Ahn is designing the Google car interior to be a soothing environment. She wants passengers to feel safe, but also relaxed. The open seats are made of compressible foam, which Ahn says is more comfortable than traditional seats. Buttons and controls are kept to a minimum. "We needed to create something relatable and intuitive, which is not confusing," Ahn says. "People had never imagined anything like that before."

Google's self-driving car prototype

Photo: Peter Prato

The exterior shape also speaks to this concept of safety. Its soft, round edges are coated in foam and the windshield is made from polycarbonate. It bares a distant resemblance to the circuitous shape of the first VW Beetle or a '50s-era Fiat 500, cars often described as cute. The sensors and lights on the Google prototype don’t feel sterile, stark, or sharp; there’s depth and fluidity across the surfaces. That’s why its prototype is like the little white bubble car that could.

While the prototype has logged many miles, it’s still not ready for public consumption. It was designed for the US only and for a mild climate like California — not for harsh weather. "We will learn a lot more over time," Ahn says, "This prototype design is still on the learning curve from a technology and design standpoint."

But Ahn is confident that the self-driving technology will take hold in this country, and consumers will eventually embrace the Google car. "Everybody has smart phones right now, but when you look back 10 years, nobody had them," she says. "I think it will take a longer time than other products, because a car is naturally very complex." But driverless cars will be the future, she assures me.

Portraits of YooJung Ahn by Vjeran Pavic

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