Self-Driving Cars Might Just Transform the Way We Work

As automated driving gets closer to reality, car designers and technology companies are giving more thought to what people might actually do in their cars when they no longer have to drive them—including how they may use them to work.
As automated driving gets closer to reality, car designers and technology companies are giving more thought to what people might actually do in their cars when they no longer have to drive them—including how they may use them to work.

Summary

BMW, Audi, Volvo and others are coming up with ideas for making the car function as your office when you no longer have to drive it.

The head of BMW Group Designworks steered his car into a rest stop, highway traffic whizzing by in the background, and then dialed into his meeting.

“I can’t concentrate on driving if I’m talking," says Holger Hampf, whose unit is internally known as “architects of the future." This pit stop, he says, happens to be an excellent example of what will change in the future. One day when cars can eventually drive themselves, executives will be able to sit back and work just as if they were in the office.

As automated driving gets closer to reality, car designers and technology companies are giving more thought to what people might actually do in their cars when they no longer have to drive them—including how they may use them to work.

Over the past few years, automakers like BMW have been rolling out what they call concept cars—prototypes of vehicles still in design stages that may or may not ever hit the road—with self-driving attributes such as no steering wheel and huge screens for watching videos and PowerPoints where the windshield used to be. “For us, the cars that will come out in 2030 are on the drawing board now," Hampf says.

Even with the rise of Zoom meetings, it’s important for executives to get in-person face time with customers and employees. That means executives will still be on the road a lot and eager for new ways to be productive in their cars.

If you didn’t believe the hype about autonomous vehicles over the past few years, you were in good company. But in spite of considerable problems with the technology, including some fatal accidents, the first generation of self-driving cars in the form of robot-taxis and shuttles has rolled out in some cities. Mercedes-Benz and BMW plan to begin introducing highly automated cars this year that allow limited hands-free driving.

Many top executives today sit in the back seat while they are chauffeured across town or from one city to the next, spending many hours in the vehicle away from the office. Executive vehicles are equipped with technology to allow them to get work done, but it’s often more suited for relaxing.

“Already today you can use in-car office technology, but it’s not as productive," says Tobias Schneiderbauer, a Munich-based partner at consulting firm McKinsey and co-lead of connectivity at the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility. Nearly one in five automobile buyers who participated in a 2022 survey conducted for McKinsey said if they didn’t have to drive themselves, they wanted their car to be designed as a fully functioning office. The annual McKinsey consumer survey was conducted in December 2022 and polled 27,036 people worldwide.

Prototype designers are experimenting with interiors that break all the rules. Once a car no longer needs a human driver, the room inside can be designed as a lounge or an office with a desk. Cadillac’s splashy concept self-driving car called InnerSpace is a two-passenger luxury ride that sports a love seat in front of a massive video screen—all that’s missing is the popcorn.

Even before cars are fully self-driving, electrification that does away with the gas-powered motor is creating more room inside the vehicle, says Lisa Reeves, Volvo’s head of interior design. Volvo Cars created a concept study for a self-driving car with four different modular interiors that could be built to order, depending on how the customer planned to use it: office, living room, party car or sleeping car. New technologies are being integrated into the car as people change how they use their vehicles. “We’re doing a lot of research on customer lifestyles," Reeves says.

Car seats that now have to face forward could swivel. Audi, for example, has been developing what it calls the Sphere design concept, and has shown a series of cars with different interiors that incorporate connectivity and self-driving technology to “create a third living space" outside the home and office. The urbansphere design concept, the largest of the series, is most conducive to morphing into a mobile office.

The concept car has forward-facing front seats that can turn during the drive to allow eye contact with passengers in the back. But they don’t turn around completely.

“The problem is that people tend to get motion sickness if they are riding backward," says Josef Schlossmacher, spokesman for Audi’s show cars.

Designers also are working on other challenges in transforming the car interior into a more free-wheeling living space, including how to meet safety requirements that include seat belts and airbags.

Aside from the physical design, new technologies have the potential to transform the car as a place for productive work. The integration of smartphone and tablet technology in auto dashboards was just the beginning.

The big screens that have been all the rage for the past few years could be replaced in the next vehicle generation with holographic technology, says Schneiderbauer of McKinsey. An executive could virtually attend a board meeting or negotiate with a business partner whose digital image would be projected inside the car—or just trade golf tips.

“It would be just as if he were there," he says. “This way the car becomes a substitute for your office. You have the same comfort as in your office, the ability to take longer rides and not lose time."

Automakers are thinking hard about technology advances such as generative artificial intelligence, the technology behind ChatGPT, and the car’s ability to process data to understand context. Equipped with technology, the car can know who is inside and what they are doing. “So, if it’s you and another person, and it knows that you’re both in a meeting, that’s one thing. If we know you’re in a family situation, we could present a whole other set of contexts and controls," says Thomas Stovicek, Volvo’s head of user experience. “The office of tomorrow could be very different from the office from today."

Some workplace experts predict generative AI could be used to create powerful conversational assistants that can help the traveling executive solve complicated problems while on the move.

Carmakers already are experimenting with the metaverse, a virtual environment that can be used to create a digital twin of the real world. This technology, combined with augmented reality and virtual reality, could let the car host a digital clone of an executive’s office, essentially letting the passenger step back into the office when entering the car.

Auto designers point to other new technologies such as holographics that could be adopted to enable travelers to remain connected to their physical offices while in the car.

Envisics, a U.K.-based startup, has developed systems using holographic technology that project graphics and information on the car’s windshield. A spokesman said the company is developing the technology further so that—like the Princess Leia hologram message in “Star Wars"—free-floating objects could be projected inside the vehicle. This could be a way to connect a traveling executive to objects and colleagues back in the office.

“Holographic technology will enable new ways of working and collaborating, including unlocking the potential for a true mobile office environment," Envisics founder and Chief Executive Jamieson Christmas said in an email. After its most recent financing round, Envisics’s investors include the venture investment units of big carmakers such as General Motors, Hyundai Motor, Jaguar Land Rover and Stellantis.

It’s possible that cars could eventually morph into a kind of robot or rolling digital assistant, analysts say. But traditional carmakers accustomed to selling emotion, evocative design and horsepower might pitch it differently.

“I wouldn’t describe it as a robot," says Hampf of BMW. “The car is becoming more of a companion and supporting you in your daily task, making your work life easier than it is today."

Write to William Boston at william.boston@wsj.com

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