Up next: self-driving offices

The modern urban commute is an enduring bummer for those who deal with jammed highways and crowded city streets. The good news is that self-driving cars are on the way. The bad news is that fully autonomous vehicles won’t arrive anytime soon. And the surprising news is that, in the end, your car may ultimately morph into a mobile office so you can work during your commute.

In what must be regarded as a decidedly American development (the U.S. is the industrialized world’s most overworked nation), forward-looking automakers and design studios are already making plans to turn the self-driving car into a mobile workplace.

The idea is to build cars with modular interior elements that switch into an office configuration when the car is driving itself. So long as you’re not actually behind the wheel, you can go ahead and get some work done. That’d be great. Right? Well, maybe.

Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car. Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The mobile office concept has been percolating for a while in the flashier design houses and is quickly bubbling up through the rest of the auto industry. Mercedes-Benz was among the first of the major automakers to fully articulate its vision when it unveiled the F 015 concept car a couple years back.

The F 015 vision imagines an all-electric, fully autonomous vehicle for the luxury-class set, with a radically updated interior cabin design. When in full autopilot mode, the car literally shapeshifts: The steering wheel retracts into the dash, the front seats swivel around to face the back seats, desktop surfaces pop out, and interior touch screens fire up on the walls. The F 015 concept also features mobile Wi-Fi, voice recognition, and gesture control.

This isn’t just concept-stage noodling, either. Mercedes-Benz classifies the F 015 as an active research project, and a functioning prototype has been touring global auto shows for more than two years now.

A prototype VW I.D. Buzz. Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

Other car companies are shepherding along similar vehicles. Earlier this year, Volkswagen announced that its all-electric update of the Minibus, dubbed the I.D. Buzz, will be in showrooms by 2022. Like the F 015, the Buzz features full online connectivity, pop-up desks, a retractable steering wheel, and those groovy swivel seats. The Buzz will also include limited autonomous driving features, like the Tesla Model S, but with built-in support for the more advanced autonomous systems that will hopefully be in place by the time of commercial production.An interior view of the prototype I.D. Buzz. Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

According to recent industry reports, upward of 44 vehicle manufacturers worldwide are now actively developing self-driving cars. You can expect all of them to eventually incorporate modular workplace elements to some degree, says Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine. “There is a reimagining going on in the ramp-up to full driverless technology, where car makers are totally rethinking the interior of the cars.”

Even some of the technology in current showroom models, like mobile Wi-Fi and gesture control systems, can be considered the first ripples of a future mobile office splash, Alterman says. This stuff has been on his mind lately.

As it happens, Car and Driver published a special edition of the magazine — guest edited by journalist and The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell — in October all about driverless cars. Alterman says that to achieve the full-on mobile office scenario — you climb in, swing the seat around, and set up your laptop — automakers will have to establish true “Level 5” autonomous vehicle technology, in which the car can do everything a human driver can.

“And the thing that will fuel that is 100 percent vehicle safety,” Alterman says. “Driving and work don’t really go together unless the car is fully responsible for all of its functions. And not just a higher level of safety than with human drivers, but more like an aeronautical level of safety where there are just no accidents.”

Assuming we reach that point — and it’s not a sure thing, Alterman says — then all bets are off regarding what autonomous vehicles will look like. “If you’re talking about a car that never crashes, then you can do away with all the traditional form factors,” he says. “You could do away with the front hood, with the crash systems. You could make the thing out of glass.”

Funny you should say….


The IDEO design firm’s “Work On Wheels” pod concept. Photo courtesy of IDEO

For a far-future vision of the car-and-office hybrid, consider the WOW Pod concept, from the global design firm IDEO, which imagines roaming autonomous office spaces that can drive themselves to wherever they’re needed in the city. Dispatched from a central warehouse, the self-driving, all-electric vehicles would charge themselves overnight then scatter out into the city like a fleet of on-demand Uber offices.

IDEO’s vision is squarely in the far-off concept category for now, but then again, autonomous vehicle technology has been evolving much faster than anticipated. Could we really see a self-driving office space in the next decade or so?

“Potentially,” Alterman says. “It’s up to the big thinkers and the dreamers at the carmakers, the suppliers, and the advanced design studios. We’ll see what happens.”