Tomorrow’s Journey
SXSW 2024

By George Watson

April 3, 2024

George Watson (forpeople) and Lyse Martel (Volkswagen Group) discussing Tomorrow’s Journey

SXSW was a whirlwind. Inspiring talks, top bands, breakfast tacos, and above all, the chance to join industry experts on stage to explore the future in-car experience. Here’s my download.

SXSW is a hotbed for innovation, thought-provoking conversations and connections. Panel discussions were packed full of curious ideas. Connections with new and existing contacts were well in bloom, especially with the guidance of HM’s Department for Business and Trade (DBT).

We were lucky enough to partake in a few events at UK House while we were there. I had the privilege of participating in a lively discussion about the influence of AI on design and craftsmanship, whilst Nathan Weyer (our Global Managing Director) took part in a roundtable discussion around the role of emerging technologies in the creative industries.

Unsurprisingly, AI was the hot topic everywhere, but both these talks centred on the human — considering perspectives and lived experiences that can maximise a partnership between people and machine.

I was fortunate enough to be selected as a speaker on an official SXSW panel. With me on stage were Lyse Martel of Volkswagen Group Future Center Europe, Charlie Prather of NIO, and Martine Paris of the BBC to discuss the future in-car experience.

Below is a recap of everything we discussed.

The automotive industry is undergoing a technology-led transformation. Electrification, combined with advances in connectivity and autonomous driving, is shifting the spotlight from traditional characteristics of performance to the in-car experience.

Journeys that enhance wellbeing.

To start, we challenged the glossy visions of the car as a mobile office, movie theatre or sleeping pod. Whilst technology evolves quickly, human needs do not. People still need connection, a sense of purpose, and to feel productive. I shared my excitement about the prospect that journeys could enhance our holistic wellbeing to help us arrive at our destination feeling better. This could play out in a number of ways – whether it’s offering real-time coaching to help someone learn a language, or enabling rejuvenation through personalised wellness activities, thanks to the car understanding the passengers’ physiological and emotional state. A journey has always been a moment of pause within our hectic lives, and I think it’s important we protect that.

“I think a lot of it comes back to being more of a human relationship… Right now, we’re kind of working for the machine,” added Charlie. “Slowly, it will be more about the machine working for us.” Discussing the impact of digital interactions in creating these sanctuaries, he said, "With AI, we can tailor the in-car environment to relieve stress, entertain, or help you meditate. It's about turning travel time into 'me time'."

Lyse expanded on this by discussing the use of sensory experiences to enhance passenger wellbeing — from the incorporation of aromatherapy to personalised lighting and digital environments. The goal is to create a space that feels personal and conducive to wellbeing, considering the diverse needs of passengers, including those with additional mobility requirements.

Martine Paris (BBC), George Watson (forpeople), Lyse Martel (Volkswagen Group Future Center Europe) and Charlie Prather (NIO)

Journeys that navigate the challenge of trust.

Despite our optimism, we all acknowledged one key hurdle — building people’s trust in vehicles. “As the car becomes more autonomous, trust becomes one of the biggest factors”, stated Charlie. He explained how UX has always been about “designing for the way people think”, an ethos he reckons is more important than ever, as an autonomous vehicle will need to communicate what it’s seeing, thinking, and doing.

Lyse explained how companies are deploying calming scents and leveraging "neuroaesthetics" to comfort passengers. Bouncing off this, I drew from our experience when working on the design of NOMI, NIO’s AI companion. We took the opportunity to build a more empathetic relationship with the car, by using light and soundscapes to subtly communicate the vehicle’s intentions. “It’s very interesting because as technology advances, the design will help us feel more human”, Martine summarised.

Journeys that are adaptive and multimodal.

With ride-sharing models comes the opportunity for enhanced modularity. I put forward a future to the panel, where a car could be delivered to you with certain configurations for certain trips, adapting to different use-cases when being shared by a community. I think this level of adaptability should run all the way through to how you interact with the car. So if you’re resting, you want something a lot softer, that’s maybe more physical. If you’re trying to game or be productive, you want something a lot more digital — through screens or gaze.

Journeys that move towards circularity.

As we envisioned the future journey, sustainability and circularity emerged as a non-negotiable pillar. As Lyse said, “It’s a model that essentially would mean using fewer resources, less natural resources — because the product will need to be either reused, adapted, upgraded, recirculated or recycled. We need to design the car for that eventuality, including the interior.”

We predicted a future where car interiors are modular, meaning they can be cost-effectively configured for new use-cases, while minimising material waste. Lyse also spoke of the future car as a canvas with different means of personalising it yourself. Comparing it to a standard hotel room that you “try to unpack in to make you feel good in the space,” a fully configurable vehicle, whether owned or shared, would be easier to love and keep in service through its maximum lifespan. Using mono-material layers throughout the vehicle could also help to optimise recyclability, as we move towards fully circular systems. For me, timeless design comes into this, as we need to transcend trends to significantly extend the life cycle of a vehicle.

Looking forward, it’s clear that the future in-car experience isn’t just about technological innovation, but about spaces and experiences that actively support our physical and mental needs, while being mindful of the environment.

The way we interact with our cars and perceive mobility is set to undergo a significant transformation — and we’re working to turn this vision into reality.

Listen to the full panel here.

Written by
George Watson

George is a Creative Director in our London studio and leads the Automotive & Mobility mission – shaping the future of how people move.

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