In the future, our cars will drive themselves. That much is clear. But what we choose to do with our time while being driven to our destinations has sparked a weird, little-noticed movement in the technology and auto industries to redefine automobiles as social environments on par with our homes and work places, a space also known as the “third place.”
Take Rinspeed, for example. The Swiss automaker (and self-described think tank) showed up at CES this year with a concept car that turned more than a few heads: the Oasis, an adorable, semi-translucent, self-driving pod with gesture control, white leather swivel seats, an augmented reality windshield. Funkier still, the Oasis had a tiny garden of succulents growing on the dashboard, injecting a little photosynthesis in our increasingly synthetic lifestyles. It was a literal breath of fresh air in a sea of sterile technology.
The Oasis is not a real car, nor will it ever be. It was meant to serve as a platform on which other carmakers, designers, and transportation visionaries could potentially build their own visions for the future of mobility. But it also fit neatly into a growing trend among technology and automotive companies to turn our cars into a third place for social interaction.
I asked Frank Rinderknecht, CEO of Rinspeed, what inspired him to design a vehicle as whimsical and unrealistic as the Oasis. “We wanted to have tangible vision of urban mobility of tomorrow,” he said. “I personally think what we know today as cars will change drastically. They will be automotive, you’ll be expecting a completely different interior, and its a march not only of mobility and technology, but mobility and third living spaces.”
The concept of the third place has been around for decades, but was probably best articulated by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. In it, he wrote that third places all over the world share common and essential features. “The eternal sameness of the third place overshadows the variations in its outward appearance and seems unaffected by the wide differences in cultural attitudes toward the typical gathering place of informal public life,” Oldenburg wrote. “The beer joint in which the middle class American takes no pride can be as much a third place as the proud Viennese coffeehouse.”
Typical third places include barber shops, cafes, parks, clubs, or even Starbucks. But can cars, with their enclosed environments, no fixed location, and demands on our attention, be considered a third place? Beyond Rinspeed, mainstream automakers are beginning to embrace this idea as well, thanks to two trends in transportation: the growing popularity of ride-sharing, car-sharing, and carpooling; and the advent of driverless technology. They think that as our attention shifts from driving to being driven, we will use our time to work, play, consume content, and interact with one another. Some companies have declared explicitly they want their cars to be the new third places. It’s a dramatic reinterpretation of what constitutes a social environment, and maybe not in a way we’re ready to accept.
At CES this year, Fiat Chrysler unveiled its Portal concept minivan, which the company billed as a “third space” designed to bridge work and home. The car is loaded with a multitude of screens and creature comforts like selfie cameras and docking stations. Chrysler sees the Portal as “an open and serene atmosphere that provides an alternative environment between work and home.”
The Portal is supposedly the first vehicle designed “for millennials, by millennials,” which is a silly way of saying that it includes a lot of bells-and-whistles that marketing companies think appeal to the smartphone generation. In some ways, the emphasis on millennials and the third space distract from a lot of the interesting technological and design elements in the Portal, like light rings around the doors and 360-degree cameras in the interior.
This idea of autos as third places goes beyond reimagining the utility of cars, like Honda did with its NeuV concept. The Japanese automaker says the two-seat vehicle could be programmed to pick up and drop off passengers when its owner isn’t using it, or to sell back remaining energy to the grid, making it one of the first vehicles designed for the express purpose of ride-hailing.
During CES, Hyundai unveiled something it called its “Mobility Vision” — a mashup of a smart home with an autonomous vehicle, with futuristic furniture moving seamlessly between both. The idea is your autonomous vehicle is docked to your home via some sort of portal, becoming a cool extension that just detaches when you’re ready to be whisked across town for an errand or road trip. The motivation, Hyundai says, is to “blur the line between mobility and living and working space, integrating the car into the daily lives of users.”
The effort to redefine cars as social spaces is rooted in a much older idea about what we would do with our time once untethered from operational demands of driving. Back in September, Uber’s vice president of engineering and head of self-driving Anthony Levandowski acknowledged that history, typified by magazines like Popular Science, while kicking off the ride-hail company’s first autonomous service in Pittsburgh.
“Even in the '50s there were advertisements about families riding around in the back of vehicles, playing dominoes, and just driving down the highway efficiently and safely, Levandowski said. “I’m sorry to say there’s going to be no domino playing in these vehicles.”
Of course, there was an unspoken “yet” after his statement. Uber is on the record about wanting to eventually deploy Level 5 autonomous vehicles, without drivers, steering wheels, or pedals. And without those controls, where else will our attention turn but to each other, especially if these driverless cars are being utilized in a carpooling capacity?
How safe is all this? I asked Mark Rosekind, the outgoing head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whether the transformation of automobiles into third places comes at the expense of safety. “I think that’s part of the excitement,” Rosekind said. “All this stuff is going to change. We, of course, put safety at the top of it. But all those things are another competitive space. How do you give control of it? How do you use it?”
He also said he was trying to stay realistic about the pace of innovation. “The full societal transformation will take 20 or 30 years,” Rosekind said. “It’s not just your vehicle, it’s buses, it’s trucks. But it won’t happen overnight.”
But Oldenburg suggests other hallmarks of third places that cars don’t (or can’t) have, complicating this redefining effort. He says third places should be free or inexpensive, feature food and drink, be highly accessible, involve regulars, be welcoming and comfortable, and be a place where both new friends and old can be found. This basically describes the bar from Cheers. Can your self-driving car get you to where you need to go, and also be a place where everybody knows your name?