Driverless cars have arrived, and they all look like loaves of bread

Chester Dawson

Do automakers investing billions in the self-driving cars of tomorrow risk repeating the same mistake they made with electric cars a decade ago?

Cutting-edge robotic people-movers from the likes of General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Jaguar Land Rover all share rectangular dimensions with more of an eye to engineering practicality than sex appeal. Even Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google parent Alphabet Inc., has chosen the minivan as its primary ride for self-driving autos.

The uniform and uninspiring looks of these autonomous vehicles are coming under criticism for being as much of a turn-off as the no-frills approach automakers took to designing EVs that ended up being slower sellers than hoped. One prominent industry observer ruefully noted in a newsletter recently: “We have collectively arrived at bread loaf as the dominant design language for AV concepts.”

The increasingly typical autonomous vehicle offerings include toolbox-shaped autos like the Cruise Origin shuttle, shown in a rendering, the Toyota-Palette and JLR’s Project Vector.

More than aesthetics are at stake. While the shuttles these companies have cooked up aren’t meant for retail showrooms, their lack of panache could turn away riders whose driverless dreams had more imagination than a modern-day caboose. To defray costs, even multi-passenger autonomous vehicles will need to charge premium prices over other forms of public transport. Some think they may need to look more like an upscale limousine than a gussied-up city bus.

“Who is asking for all of these boxes?” said Tony Posawatz, a former GM executive who developed the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and now consults for mobility companies. “If the early users are affluent people, they are used to a certain badge and a certain kind of performance.”

Not all automakers are following the same playbook. Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz showcased an ultra-luxurious self-driving concept car called the F 015 in January, though it isn’t aimed at a mass-market audience. Tesla Inc. has vowed to bring autonomy to the masses with the Model 3, but for all the progress CEO Elon Musk is making in other regards, he continues to leave customers wanting with regard to making the controversial Autopilot system as capable as he’s predicted.

The increasingly typical AV offerings are toolbox-shaped autos like the Origin shuttle shown recently by GM’s Cruise LLC, the Toyota-Palette set to debut this summer, and JLR’s Project Vector, a preview of vehicles the Tata Group unit expects to be road testing by 2021.

Startup Zoox Inc.has shown only concept car frames, but they’re similar in shape to the May Mobility shuttles running around cities in Michigan and Rhode Island, built to putter along at slower speeds.

“You squint your eyes and they all kind of look alike,” said Reilly Brennan, general partner at venture capital fund Trucks VC and author of the newsletter with the bread loaf quip. “There’s much greater room for design character than what we’re seeing,” he said, adding that some aspects are functional necessities,like passenger-friendly sliding doors and rounded corners for sensors.

Automakers are aware it’s already a tough sell to persuade people to abandon traditional cars with steering wheels and the freedom to ride solo.

Asked at a recent investor conference about the biggest obstacles to AVs outside of technical challenges, Dan Ammann, the former GM president who now runs Cruise, said the business case for them could be undercut if potential customers don’t think they’re appealing enough to park their current daily driver.

“For the average person in the street today, there’s still a view that self-driving ... is this thing that’s kind of far out there,” he said. “We have an obligation as industry leaders to tell that story and build that sort of societal pull” for AVs.