The other night I was out to dinner with my family and the topic of autonomous vehicles came up. My dad and I always seem to talk about something technology or marketing related.

With much enthusiasm, I told my dad about the recent announcement Uber had made that they were launching a fleet of driverless vehicles in Pittsburgh. I didn’t realize just how enthusiastic I had gotten until I overheard my sister say under her breath to my cousin, “Will’s really excited about this apparently.” It then registered just how loud I was talking. 😂

But come on, how is this not exciting?! Transportation as we know it is changing before our eyes. It’s not something happening years from now, it’s here. A lot faster than I thought it would be too. Like most techies and designers, I’ve been fully aware of the driverless car developments at Google, Tesla, and elsewhere for the past handful of years, but I didn’t see a rollout of the technology at this scale happening for at least a couple more years.

Glad I was wrong.


It got me thinking about two big questions 🤔

  1. What will Uber have to do to make their riders feel comfortable and safe with such a new technology that subsequently takes away human control?
  2. What will happen to the interface design of our vehicles when the default is driverless controls?

These are the type of questions I love to ponder. Big, lots of (if not entirely) new territory, and many directions it could go. I decided to sit down at a cafe recently and brainstorm while my dog chewed through a new bone at my side.

A few disclaimers before I continue:

  • I don’t have any industry knowledge about this any more than the next Google-searching-nerd who’s willing to look into this.
  • I didn’t research this forever before I started thinking it through - I dove in and had fun.
  • I’d love to see the research done to answer these questions, and then approach this again.

Okay. That’s out of the way.

What is needed to make riders feel comfortable and safe?

I don’t know the demographics of the average Uber passenger, but it’s safe to assume some people won’t be too keen on the idea of driverless vehicles picking them up. I mean, someone’s definitely going to look at the empty ride, ready to take them away un-chauffeured and say “no. nope. Not getting in,” right? 🙃 After all, we’re talking about putting our lives in the hands of computers. People are going to be uncomfortable.


That’s an exciting opportunity Uber, and any other company tackling this gets to figure this out. That is, instilling the general public with the feeling that driverless cars are a normal, safe part of life.

For many of these driverless Uber passengers, their first ride in one will be the first time they have even seen an autonomous car in person, let alone ride in one. So the first phase of this rollout will have to focus on getting people to agree that autonomous transit is not only a good thing, but a thing they *want*.

Experience designers should never assume that exciting new technology will be enough to make people adopt it immediately. It takes empathy and care to communicate to people in a human way that evokes adoption and daily use. For the user, this should be felt throughout every step of the experience design. Digital or otherwise.

Therein lies the first key to thinking through this opportunity Uber and similar companies have: this is not solely a digital experience. It may start with the user calling for a ride, but the next step is them opening the door to a physical environment.

In order for autonomous transit to succeed during this adoption phase, it needs a branding and educational component too.

How does this look?

With all that in mind, here’s how calling a driverless Uber could work during the adoption phase, when all of this is brand new.

The rider opens the app to call an Uber and select their destination. They notice a new default option for Uber type: Driverless. Curious by what that means, they click the “LEARN MORE” button and are taken to a beautifully designed one page informational section of the app with a video at the top, followed by short, easy-to-understand features explaining the Driverless option and process. The video would be written and designed in a way that evokes a sense of calm and confidence, with excellent visuals and sound design.

Understanding what it is, the rider trusts the brand and process enough to give it a shot. They call the Uber and it arrives.

Even though the Driverless Ubers will have a, let’s call them “conductor” for now since they’re not actually driving the vehicles, the vehicles need to operate as if there is none - this will begin to establish expectations in the riders for what it will be like when the vehicles are conductorless. With that in mind, the vehicle arrives with a subtle red glow around the handles. Once the vehicle is at a complete stop the glow turns green, letting the rider know it’s now okay to enter the vehicle.

Getting in the vehicle is a pleasant experience, since the vehicle welcomes the rider by name (there’s even an option in the Uber app to help teach Uber’s autonomous system how to pronounce tricky names).

There’s no guarantee the rider’s will have their phone out and app open when entering the vehicle, so in front of every seat is a screen with a conversational user interface prompting the rider to confirm their destination. This is pretty much how every Uber ride starts, after all. “Looks like we’re heading to [place], right?”

With the destination confirmed the user can select a playlist to listen to or sync their personal Spotify preferences. After the vehicle has confirmed that seatbelts have been fastened (this is starting to sound like an airplane 🛩) the trip begins.

But this screen could also be an opportunity to let the rider learn more about how Uber is “leading the way in autonomous transit”, it’s dedication to safety, and reinforce Uber’s brand in the rider’s mind. Those small screens (and in the app) could be home to a “learning center” (boring, temporary name) where the rider can dive deeper into understanding the technology and how Uber executes it. All through a friendly, conversational engagement that immerses the rider into the world of Uber.

Why not take it a step further? Without a driver (eventually) to create conversation (when desired - cough some riders don’t want to chat cough) the same screen could operate short, simple games for the entire vehicle to enjoy. If you’re having a night out, the fun continues while on the road and you have a fun story to tell to whoever your meeting.

Or perhaps the city partners with Uber to provide high-quality information about the city, its history, and what it has to offer. But this is not a place to advertise. Please 🙏 please don’t make this space obnoxious and thus lose all attention of the rider. If you do they’ll just do what everyone does with ads - ignore them.

Or work with popular apps that have a specific purpose. Turn a 15 minute commute into a Headspace session, or do a quick lesson in Duolingo. Things that make people better.

If the rider doesn’t want any of those immersive experiences, simply default to a screen showing the trip’s progress.

The reason this experience is focused 100% on the rider: establish trust.

Now these are all exploratory ideas that would need research and testing to validate the strategies. But it may just be a good place to start. Excited to see how it rolls out.

Note: I’ll answer question #2 at a later date. Stay tuned.