In the autonomous car of the future, we're all passengers

The Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept looks beyond the mechanics of self-driving cars to explore how we'll interact with them once they're here.

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The Mercedes-Benz F 015 is a self-driving concept car that doesn't explore how we'll get to the point where cars can drive themselves, but rather how we'll interact with them when we get there. Modern cars are designed around a human driver with all passengers facing forward, but how will that all change once we put a computer behind the wheel?

Mercedes-Benz has already proven that it can build an autonomous car that can drive itself on public roads, with the S 500 Intelligent Drive vehicle back in 2013 and the Future Truck 2025 commercial concept presented in September. That's not the point.

Primarily a design and interface study, Benz didn't want to burden the slick F 015 concept with the bulky sensor package and computing hardware that an actual self-driving car requires, so the prototype that I rode in today wasn't even truly autonomous. For now, the F 015 is only able to follow a pre-programmed route and simple commands on a closed course.

This is why my ride took place in the middle of a runway on a former Naval Air Station with nothing to run into for hundreds of feet in any direction. And even then, the prototype experienced a "technical difficulty" halfway through my demonstration and needed to be manually driven back to the starting bay. After much fussing by serious looking engineers, the concept was shortly up and running again, ready to shuttle the next group of curious journalists along its pre-programmed course.

Let's back up for a moment. My ride along actually started outside of the car, where an engineer produced an iPhone running a Mercedes-Benz app that allowed him to remotely call the F 015 from its nearby parking spot to pick us up at curbside. This same app can, in Mercedes-Benz's vision, be used to send the car away to park itself, acting as its own valet. As the car sprang to life, its exterior LEDs all glowed blue to let onlookers know that it was operating in an autonomous mode. When the concept is driven manually, its headlights glow a more conventional white.

When the car stopped nearby, I walked around to the far side. As I passed in front of the car, LEDs in the grill glowed to indicate that the car had detected me as a pedestrian. "Go ahead, please," it said through exterior speakers, to indicate that it was safe for me to cross. Later, Mercedes-Benz demonstrated how lasers in the grill could even project a virtual crosswalk onto the road to give pedestrians a visual cue, and how passengers could wave a hand at the stopped robo-car and be greeted with a "thank you" as the car resumed its course.

The F 015's front seats swivel 180-degrees to face the rear passengers when in autonomous mode.Photo by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Climbing past the motorized coach doors and into one of the four motorized, swiveling seats, I was struck by two things. The first was just how many screens had been integrated into the cabin. There were large touchscreens in all four doors, another on the bulkhead behind the back seats. The center console was also a narrow touchscreen that folded out to become a small table; and the entire dashboard was taken up by an ultrawide gesture-controlled display. The second thing that I noticed was how painfully glossy everything was. With nearly every surface covered by a screen or shiny white plastic, the interior was overwhelmed with glare and reflections in the harsh midday sun.

A Mercedes-Benz representative in the driver's seat started the car on its pre-programmed course and then, with the touch of a button, swivelled his chair around backwards to face me on the second row. With the car driving itself and the steering wheel retracted into the dashboard, there was no need for him to face ahead.

Massive touchscreens in all of the doors display a wide range of information and give all four passengers control over the self driving car.Photo by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Here is where things get interesting -- and where all of those screens come into play. The F 015 is able to display a wide array of information on its many displays. Audio source information, vehicle speed and ETA data, video and voice calls, and GPS information are just the tip of the iceberg. Passengers can display information about the area around them or call up virtual scenery to fill all of the displays, replacing a boring commute with more exotic locales.

Most interestingly, any of the four passengers can set the destination, choose alternate routes, or even control the autonomous driving characteristics of the F 015 from their touchscreen, going from slow and comfortable to quick and dynamic with a virtual slider. When the car drives itself, anyone in the car (not just the person nearest to the steering wheel) can be the "driver."

CNET takes a ride in the autonomous Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept.Photo by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

As all of this was explained, I tapped away at the screens and chatted with fellow passengers as the F 015 hummed along its route. And then, suddenly, it was time to get out. I was surprised when I emerged near the far end of the runway -- my assumption was that we'd be back at the start of the route -- and it was then that I realized that I hadn't looked outside of the windows once during the 15-minute ride.

This is the idea of the F 015: not to show off the mechanics of autonomous driving, but to show how we'll interact with a future self-driving car. Today's cars are built around the cockpit and the business of looking forward, steering, accelerating and braking. But when we reach that point 30-plus years from now where we can totally trust a car to handle the driving, the F 015 posits that we'll be able to literally turn our backs on the road and interact face-to-face with the other passengers or explore more extensive entertainment and productivity technology without fear of distracting the driver. In the self-driving car of the future, we'll all be passengers. Meanwhile, the vehicle will be interacting with pedestrians, other vehicles and even infrastructure on our behalf.

The F 015's exterior design hides away the windows and the interior design doesn't encourage you to look out of them.Photo by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

As a self-described vigilant driver and a person who gets a little nervous when my human girlfriend asks me to take a passenger seat, this degree of inattention is an alien concept. So I was startled by how easily the F 015 had tricked me into totally relinquishing control to the machine and impressed by how natural it all felt. Of course, I couldn't help but wonder if the passengers of the year 2045 would feel the same seamless ease if they were in the thick of traffic and not on a closed course. I'd like to think that they would.

Of course, this is the part of the story where the aforementioned "technical difficulty" occurred and our driver had to swivel his seat around, and manually pilot the prototype back to the starting point with the old-fashioned steering wheel and pedals. The road to the autonomous car will be a long one and Mercedes' vision for the future of driving is even further. But just for a moment on that big empty runway, the F 015 gave me a crystal-clear glimpse of what it feels like to let go and embrace the future.