VW Sedric: A paradigm shift in car development?
You might love or hate the rather peculiar exterior of Volkswagen’s new concept car. But either way, it’s what’s inside that counts. In one of the most radical approaches yet in the quest to make driverless cars a living space, VW is sending a signal that the focus of the industry could well be shifting.
When Volkswagen unveiled their new concept car – Sedric – at the Geneva International Motor Show, the vehicle’s appearance caused quite a few fun comments and raised some eyebrows. “Giant toaster”, “Teletubby” or “Pokémon” were only some of the comparisons made by the media. And indeed, the exterior design of the fully autonomous pod looks neither flashy nor sporty, attributes which have sold cars in all of their history. But still, some media outlets seem to have missed the point: the VW Sedric (short for self-driving car) is all about the interiors. With their radical focus on the vehicle cabin, the biggest vehicle manufacturer in the world points to what might be the next battle field of the car industry: making cars as homely as possible.
Sedric’s inside represents an elaborate concept: The car is VW’s first concept vehicle for level 5 automation – which means a human driver is no longer required. Consequently, the carmaker has entirely abandoned features like steering wheel, shift console or pedals. Removing these “relics” makes room for new concepts: "We're going for a completely new interior architecture," VW brand chief designer Klaus Bischoff said according to The Car Connection. "Clean, very tidy, very pure."
Everything inside the concept car invites you to make yourself comfortable: The seats convey a cocktail-bar-esque ambience; plants create a more pleasant air and natural habitat. The windscreen serves as a giant OLED screen with augmented reality that can be used for both communication and entertainment. Speaking of communication: obviously, passengers can talk to Sedric to name a destination or ask for en-route information. “Sedric is a comfortable lounge on wheels,” a VW press release states. “While you are on the road, you can choose exactly what you want to do.” That, in a nutshell, is what the challenge comes down to: once driving is no longer necessarily a human task, consumers might choose the car that allows them to do what they want. Whether it’s writing e-mails, watching a movie or taking a nap, once the customer’s priorities shift, the car’s aesthetic might give way to comfort and functionality.
That is especially true if autonomous driving fuels the trend towards car sharing and ride hailing, as many experts believe. If you don’t own the car, you don’t express your personality through it and consequently you’ll care less about what it looks like from the outside – as long as the interior is cool, comfortable and practical. Interestingly enough, Sedric lacks a dominant reference to the VW brand. VW itself dubs Sedric “a shared mobility vehicle” that can be owned but also ordered by “city people who do not have their own car or a driving license” as well as visitors to a new city who “decide they want to get from A to B in a convenient mobility setting.”
Part of the Sedric concept is a remote control that customers can use to summon a vehicle within minutes – whether they are at home, on holiday or a business trip. And as little as this remote control is, as large are the implications it reveals: If Volkswagen assumes people will carry a special device to summon a Sedric (then to become a synonym for a self driving car, rather than a product name) this implies a large scale infrastructure of these vehicles, so they are readily available, anytime, anywhere. Looks like VW is aiming to produce yet another actual “Volkswagen”, i.e. “peoples’ car”.
So the concept vehicle is a good indication of the transformation into mobility providers that traditional OEMs will undergo. Whether it’s Ford, Audi or Opel – many major players have laid out respective plans. That can mean establishing their own mobility services (such as Daimler with Car2Go or BMW with DriveNow/ReachNow) or indeed selling vehicles to fleet operators like Uber or Lyft.
Creating vehicle interiors that consumers like to spend time in could therefore prove to be a competitive advantage. Different driverless cars could cater to different needs. Always a source of inspiration, visionary Swiss carmaker Rinspeed introduced their concept vehicle Oasis at CES 2017. While rather trivial on the outside, the interior provides a living-room feeling, complete with armchair, sideboard, TV – and even a small garden to grow bonsai trees. But at the same time, the car can be used as a rolling office. When in autonomous mode, the steering wheel flattens and turns into a keyboard or work surface. Targeting business people with a mobile work space – surely a worthwile approach for premium OEMs?
U.S. carmaker Chrysler is meanwhile aiming for the younger generation but is sticking, however, to a less radical approach: For now, their self-driving Chrysler Portal concept car claims to be the “next generation family transportation designed by millennials for millennials.” It comes with ten mobile device docking stations, an integrated selfie camera and an audio system that allows different zones of the car to listen to different music. Whether the inclusion of these rather stereotypical gadgets is enough to make a driverless car appealing remains to be seen.
But one senses an overarching pattern emerging. As automation increases and car ownership decreases, OEMs are discovering that the vehicle interior is their blank canvas – they can paint it how they want in an effort to stand out. It is shaping up to be a competitive race with one winner already determined: the customer.