The current fleet of autonomous car prototypes aren't terribly far removed from their manual counterparts — visually, the only significant difference is the mechanical brain stuffed inside their boots. All this is set to change in the years ahead, however. As Nvidia's senior director of automotive research Danny Shapiro explains, everything from the materials used to the way cars are upgraded will be completely different. In short, your car will behave like a very expensive smart phone.
Future cars image from Shutterstock
We spoke to Danny Shapiro during Nvidia's GTC tech conference which takes place in the heart of Silicon Valley each year. According to Shapiro, the self-driving car industry will be a very different beast to the automotive industry of today. Once the technology reaches the fabled "Level 4 Autonomy" — which means it can drive completely unassisted in every situation — many manufacturing processes will no longer be needed.
During a Q&A session with Lifehacker at Nvidia GTC 2016, Shapiro explained some of the ways autonomous car manufacturer will transform the cars we "drive":
You're going to see a lot of changes. The types of materials used to manufacture cars are going to be different. Because they won't crash, you won’t need to have steel reinforced parts, air bags or even a steering wheel. We'll be able to have much lighter-weight vehicles on the road. Because nobody is driving, you can also have seats that swivel around so that the passengers inside are all facing each other. In terms of design, sure, it has to be manufacturable, but otherwise it doesn't need to look anything like the cars of today. We're already seeing stuff like spherical wheels that can move in any direction — provided it's safe, there's no limit to the wild and crazy things we can do.
More intriguingly, people will be able to upgrade to a "new" model without replacing their current car, thanks to the software that powers the technology. As Shapiro explained:
"When you buy a car today, it's a fixed-function vehicle. Autonomous driving systems will actually get better; there will be more and more software development going into the vehicle. The expectation of someone buying a car will be that it will improve over time, just like your phone of tablet does.
"The idea of [car manufacturers] spending X amount of dollars on something that does this one thing will change to a software development cycle, where the capabilities of the car that are available to the consumer from day one will be updated with new features."
This will allow software developers like Nvidia to extend their partnership with car manufacturers for the lifespan of a particular vehicle; even after it ceases production.
Ironically, we could enter a future where self-driving cars look so outlandish and spectacular that they cause "traditional" drivers to crash more often. Who has time to watch the road when futuristic vehicles with spherical wheels keep whizzing by?
Gizmodo travelled to GTC 2015 in San Jose, California as a guest of Nvidia.