Autonomous Environments: Designing Autonomous Experiences

January 2017 - May 2017, Junior Year | Group Members: Alex Palatucci, Jake Scherlis | Client: Fiat Chrysler Automotive

Back when I was younger, I ignored self-driving cars. I thought they were a figment of the imagination, a representation in a cartoon or sci-fi movie rather than a reality. Thanks to the incredible advancements in design, engineering, and technology, self-driving cars are becoming a reality. We are headed towards a future possibly with no driver's licenses, allowing vehicles to transport us wherever, whenever.

This project is a collaboration between Product Design students at Carnegie Mellon University and Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA). We were given a very broad prompt: reimagine a future city with complete integration of autonomous vehicles. How would services, environments, and infrastructure change with the rise of autonomy? Our group focused specifically on how autonomous vehicles could be used as transportation spaces and environments with the intent of supporting communities of people.

Preliminary Research

Our first step in our exploratory research phase was to survey how people currently use vehicles. Our motivation behind this was that by learning what users currently use cars for, we could integrate these actions into future autonomous vehicles. 

How do you use your car?

What do you do in a car that you're not supposed to do?

What do you do as a passenger?

Affinity Clustering & Key Findings

Once we received survey results from around 50 people, we began to analyze this preliminary data using affinity clustering, creating relationships between responses and grouping them to determine the overarching trends. We found that people tended to use cars mostly as a tool for either getting someplace or for efficiency and convenience when running errands. Based on some of the qualitative questions we asked, people found that time spent in the car between stores while running errands was seen as wasted. 

We also asked questions about the car as a private space in order to better get a sense of user behavior within the vehicle space. Passenger behavior was mostly social, with most passengers interacting with the driver, changing the music, or interacting with others through their phone. In order to get insight on driver behavior, we asked about what users did in the vehicle that they shouldn't necessarily do. By asking this question, we hoped to understand how cars are viewed as private spaces, as opposed to transportation modules.

Ideation: Autonomous Vehicles as Environments

Using the insights from our surveys, we came up with a driving concept of reimagining autonomous cars not as cars, but "autonomous environments." They could be infinitely configurable for different modes and lifestyles, affording flexibility and modularity to users. We also wanted these autonomous environments to fit into future services, providing a platform seamless interactions between users and their needs.

We decided to map out an example to test our idea. We mapped out the actors, environments, interactions, and objects within the healthcare industry and thought about where exactly autonomous environments could fit within this framework in order to improve it. 

Creative Future Scenarios: AEIOU

Keeping with the theme of becoming more future-oriented as we researched autonomous environments, we decided to think of some wild scenarios to stay creative in the process. As a group, we came up with an AEIOU (Action, Environment, Interaction, Objects, Users) scenario to imagine a situation in the future that we could illustrate. In this scenario, "Frank" gets a call from his mom while he is running. He picks up using handsfree technology in his jacket hood and talks as he runs. His mother calls from her working autonomous environment, just to check up on him and see how he is doing.

Creative Future Scenarios: Day in The Life

We also brainstormed a "day in the life" in a future where autonomous vehicles are utilized as modular environments, interfacing with services in order to create a seamless experience. We began with a situation: a man, "Joe," is getting his cast adjusted by a nurse who arrived in her mobile urgent care unit. We branched out from there into what Joe does during his day, where the nurse goes, and how Joe communicates with others. While this was a crazy scenario, it helped us realize the plausibility of this idea. Visualizing autonomous vehicles as mobile platforms that afford transitional, comfortable, and flexible spaces was when we finally became aware of a real opportunity.

Engaging User Participation: Bodystorming

In order to get more insight into the feasibility into the idea of autonomous mobile spaces, we set up a bodystorming workshop. We asked 3 participants - two designers and one non-designer - to redesign the interior of an empty box truck that had been donated to them. They were going on a 3 day trip to a destination of their choosing and could outfit the box truck however they wanted. The truck had its own chauffeur and would drive them wherever they wanted. The scene was set as far into the future as they would like in order to encourage the most creative of responses, "future magic" being an acceptable reason for some of the technology and innovations that they participants wanted to incorporate. 

Participants created a comfortable space for socializing and were also invested in the idea of having lots of flexibility with regard to the activities possible in the space. They pointed out key aspects of the space, such as a couch, a bike storage area, a quiet space, bunk beds, and other elements that they deemed important to their road trip experience. The bodystorming exercise solidified our concept that we wanted to explore autonomous vehicles as mobile, flexible spaces that people and communities could customize to their liking.

Ideation + Video Storyboarding


 CMU Product Designers + the Fiat Chrysler design team (including the wonderful Ralph Gilles)

CMU Product Designers + the Fiat Chrysler design team (including the wonderful Ralph Gilles)


This is a semester-long, ongoing project. Check back often to see our current progress!