KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's one thing to be uncomfortable with new apps or virtual reality. But when a car is driving itself down your street, that's different. Studies show Americans do not feel comfortable with autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars. But Detroit's Silicon Valley and Wall Street are spending billions on the new technology, and they need to figure out how to make people like it. To learn how they're doing that, NPR's Sonari Glinton went to car design school.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Hello, I'm Sonari.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey.
GLINTON: Nice to meet you.
In the hills above the Rose Bowl in Pasadena is ArtCenter College of Design. It's a very modern campus with breathtaking views. But here at this Jetsons-like campus, pardon the pun, the classrooms often look really old school.
What am I not looking at? Hello.
ANSHAL MALHAN: So there's a visual communications class going on in that room right now...
GLINTON: They design cars and almost every kind of high-tech transportation. In many ways, they've moved way beyond planes, trains and automobiles. Anshal Malhan is a graduate student in the transportation design program here at ArtCenter.
MALHAN: This is where the second-term students...
GLINTON: OK, so in here it's like there - can we go in?
GLINTON: I mean, it's like there's not very much of the wall that's not covered with Post-it notes or...
MALHAN: Yeah, and what you notice is none of them have cars on it because that's not how we approach design. We approach it from the user first and then figure out what do we give them in the end.
GLINTON: These grad students are working on their thesis projects. The assignment is not necessarily to design a self-driving car. That's been done many times before. It's really about making people feel comfortable. That's the hard part says Calvin Ku. His project is for the dyed in the wool driving enthusiast.
CALVIN KU: Why can't our relationship with an autonomous car be more like a relationship with, say, a horse - a rider and a horse or two tango partners?
GLINTON: OK, that's a big important idea to remember. The first autonomous vehicle was likely a horse. Now, in Ku's concept, there is no steering wheel. There are no pedals. But in the same sort of way you might lean back to slow down your horse, that's kind of what you would do in his car. There are these subtle knobs that help you communicate with the car, not necessarily command it. You're working with the car, influencing it the way you would influence a horse.
So what are we looking at here?
KU: I'm storyboarding an interaction with my enthusiast self-driving car of the future - so, say, 15 years from now.
GLINTON: So you're imagining an enthusiast driving - what it looks like - this is on the Pacific Coast Highway, right?
KU: Right. So this person is starting on Santa Monica. And there's a lot of traffic, so he doesn't want to drive. He's just going to read a book. But five hours later, they've reached Big Sur, a part of Big Sur where the car - since they've kind of created a relationship with each other, you know, kind of like the dog that knows your favorite spots to run with it. This car knows your favorite spot on Highway 1, you know, the windy fun roads, you know?
GLINTON: The idea is that over the years, your car becomes your playmate, not just an appliance.
MALHAN: This is all of ours.
GLINTON: This is your wall? (Laughter) Wow.
MALHAN: We can show you a package that we finalized for the family in 2030.
GLINTON: Oh, look, a car designer using paper.
MALHAN: Yes. So this is a lay out that we finalized after primary research with families.
GLINTON: What Anshal Malhan is doing is critical. Though on the surface it seems touchy feely, well, that's because it is. The big barrier to autonomous vehicles besides the obvious legal ones is making people trust them. Until my buddy Steve feels absolutely totally completely at ease putting his family into one of these self-driving cars, he won't and neither will you.
MALHAN: So your friend Steve right now has the responsibility of being a father, a driver and a route follower. What we're trying to do is, with autonomy, keep him a father in the car and outside the car. So he's able to give more family time, you know, better quality family time.
GLINTON: I have a predication - the rate of pull-my-finger jokes is going to go up exponentially in the age of autonomous cars. At least that's what these students are banking their future on and ours. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF IV THE POLYMATH SONG, "BLUEBERRY SPY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.