Do you ever look at the bonnet of a car and see a face? Headlights for eyes, grille for mouth and so on. You're not crazy. It's a pretty common phenomenon called anthropomorphism: the tendency to humanize non-human objects. Now, autonomous vehicle designers are looking at how to give their cars the friendliest "faces" they can.
The psychology of anthropomorphism
Psychologists say that we anthropomorphize things in order to figure out whether they represent danger. That is, when we look at anything unfamiliar, we instinctively try to figure out its intentions toward us by reading its face, or whatever part of it vaguely resembles one.
In the case of cars, this is usually the front end of the vehicle. In general, it doesn't matter very much how we perceive the "personality" of our vehicles. We, or someone else, are in direct control of them, so whatever we might think about the car is displaced onto the person, or onto ourselves.
But with the rise of autonomous vehicles (AVs), the question of how we look at our cars becomes more urgent. These vehicles have a couple of obvious differences from regular cars - we aren't used to them, and they aren't controlled by humans. This adds up to making them seem alien and potentially scary. So what are AV-manufacturers doing about it?
Helping you trust your robotic chauffeur
San Francisco-based company Punchcut specializes in speculative design projects exploring the future of vehicle-user interaction. Kerry Gould, senior design project manager at the company, has been looking very closely at car "faces" for a long time now.
She thinks the trend over the last two decades has been towards making cars look more alien and aggressive. It's a trend she hopes to see reversed as AVs come into more common use. After all, a car that on some level looks unhappy to see you isn't going to make a great first impression on people new to self-driving vehicles.
She points to other futuristic designs as equally problematic; though they look less peeved, designs like the Mercedes concept above can be very impersonal and alienating to look at. "I think they are designed for our current mentality, where the road is just going to be a fiercer battlefield". On the other hand, Google's Waymo, pictured at the top, looks like a friendly little guy indeed.
For Gould, this is a step in the right direction. But for others, like psychologist Adam Waytz, this approach presents its own dangers: "The danger of anthropomorphizing AVs could be close to something called 'GPS death', where people follow their GPS to the middle of the desert or into the ocean". In other words, users could come to trust their AVs too much, believing they could never do them harm even by accident.
Like most world-changing new technologies, adapting to autonomous vehicles will be as much a matter of affect as of practicalities. Would you trust a Waymo?