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September 27, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

The Role of UI/UX in Solving Self-Driving Car Challenges

Self-driving cars are intriguing to tech and automotive fans alike, but recent crashes have opened up discussions about safety and building consumer trust. Fast Company’s Co.Design recently advocated that a focus on UX design could solve these problems – and many experts agree.

To get the inside scoop on how UI/UX could play a key role in solving self-driving car challenges and bring these to market, we talked to Pascal Soboll, current head of Daylight Design Europe and former IDEO executive. He shared his insights, which come from a long-time passion for the automotive industry and hands-on experience with car design and self-driving cars.

The Current State of Self-Driving Cars

According to Soboll, “The technology is developing faster than anyone would have thought just a few years ago.” He believes that most people are still focused on the technical feasibility of self-driving cars, but the industry is far past the point of “what if.” In fact, several companies have recently started public trials, including a self-driving taxi in Singapore and a self-driving Uber in Pittsburg.

Can We Trust Driverless Cars?

In many ways, the biggest question is trust. Can we trust a machine enough to hand over the controls and to be on the road while other driverless cars are in operation? Studies suggest that design may hold the key. Last year, Hyundai and Artefact teamed up to fight for the future of autonomous cars. Artefact believes that incidents regarding self-driving car safety proved three things:

  1. Cars are not yet capable of driving themselves.
  2. Humans are not ready to fully trust self-driving cars.
  3. The automobile industry needs to design self-driving cars in a way that inspires trust in humans.

Building consumer trust is at the heart of getting people to buy – and operate – these vehicles. Soboll agrees, and mentioned that in order to gain public acceptance, a new set of behaviors and systems need to be designed: “It’s really hard to build trust in a perfectly working system if you don’t really develop an intuition about what that system actually is capable of. If there is a self-driving car, and it does its job well, you’re still wondering, ‘Well, but what if a critical situation occurred?’”

What is the Role of UI/UX Design in Self-Driving Car Challenges?

Soboll believes that design plays a key role in overcoming the challenges currently faced in the self-driving market. “I think that UI/UX designers will need to see their job as not just designing for ease of use, but also designing for a learning curve and transition.” After all, most of the current issues with self-driving cars come back to people being able to trust that they can work. As Fast Company pointed out, “new technologies should do not only what they promise, but what we imagine.”

Soboll offers some practical tips for how design will influence the future of self-driving cars:


When a person gives up control behind the wheel, they still need a signal that the computer is seeing what they’re seeing. A human rider would prefer a notification about a potential safety hazard, even if the self-driving car can handle it on its own.

People also appreciate knowing what the car is about to do, so they can anticipate what’s about to happen. Besides drivers, it’s also important to communicate to pedestrians when it’s safe to cross in front of a self-driving car. Co. Design muses that, “before the cars of the future can become our pilots, they need to prove themselves as our co-pilots.”

Manual Controls (for now)

On steering wheels, Soboll says, “Right now, driving or even getting from A to B in a personal car means you are manually steering that vehicle. And that’ll change, and that’ll be a transition. It’ll be a new experience for drivers, who ultimately become passengers. It’s a new set of behaviors and a new set of systems that you’ll need to trust, potentially trust with your lives. And that’s something that will need to be designed as well.”

Soboll notes that the dashboard design will be critical. “We will see the dashboard changing slowly. But we will see things like the screens growing. We will see things like the steering wheel eventually being an optional thing by maybe disappearing into the dash and only coming out when needed.” Eventually, manual controls will likely be phased out in exchange for screens that are meant to share information without needing a passenger to act on it.

Incremental Steps

There are already cars on the market with crash-avoidance and self-parking technology that in some ways are “self-driving.” The next step is to perfect these systems, create more, and connect these features into a fully autonomous vehicle.

In regards to UI/UX design for self-driving cars, Soboll says, “I think we’re going to see the car becoming more complex before it becomes easier, so to speak. We’ll see a lot of doubling up of functionality between manual and automatic modes.” Eventually, it will all become a digital experience, but it will take years to fully develop the safest self-driving cars.

We’re on the brink of a fundamental shift that relates to all areas of the automotive industry: parking, car usage, and even ownership. Self-driving cars will play a role so much larger than just a new way to get around. Soboll asks, “If my attention isn’t needed for driving as much anymore, then the question is, “Well, how do I work effectively in the car?” It’s exciting to consider the possibilities a society of fully automated cars can bring about. To get to an acceptable standard for autonomous cars, using UI/UX design is key.

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