Driverless cars could spell the end for domestic flights, says Audi strategist

Self-driving cars could disrupt the airline and hotel industries within 20 years as people sleep in their vehicles on the road, according to a senior strategist at Audi.

Short-haul travel will be transformed and the hassle of getting to and from airports eliminated, said Sven Schuwirth, vice president of brand strategy and digital business at the German car brand.

Business travellers will be able to avoid taking domestic flights to meetings and will sleep and work in their cars en route instead of checking into city-centre hotels, he said.

"In the future you will not need a business hotel or a domestic flight," Schuwirth told Dezeen. "We can disrupt the entire business of domestic flights."

He added: "I think that vision is probably 20 years from now."

Bored drivers can snooze at the wheel in Volvo's Concept 26 self-driving car
Volvo has just unveiled an autonomous vehicle concept that allows drivers to relinquish the controls when bored, allowing drivers to snooze at the wheel

Cars will increasingly resemble mobile apartments, he said, and service stations along highways will evolve to support them, offering drivers facilities for washing, dining and shopping.

Hotels would change in response, Schuwirth added, with drivers using their facilities but returning to their cars to sleep. "Why should a hotel look like a hotel today?" he said.

Car interiors will be able to morph between driving mode and sleeping mode, Schuwirth predicted.

"Today's cars are shaped to be only an emotional piece and to be very comfortable and safe," he said. "So in an autonomous world, if cars do not have accidents any more, the cars do not have have a small amount of glass, a lot of metal, a lot of bumpers and all that stuff. It could be a bit more transparent."

"Once you decide you want to go for an autonomous drive or a piloted drive, then something happens in your car, so your car transforms inside and the interior changes."

Mercedes-Benz unveiled an autonomous pod-like vehicle designed to function as a communal living room on wheels at CES 2015

Supercar brand McLaren is also investigating shape-shifting cars. McLaren's chief designer Robert Melville told Dezeen at the start of this year that cars could soon adjust their geometry and functionality as they switch between urban and out-of-town driving.

Schuwirth added: "There will be a steering wheel in case you decide you want to drive but you can get rid of the steering wheel and maybe the chairs somehow change so it's not the standard sporty chair, but it's more like a sofa or a bed. The entire space inside of the car will definitely look completely different."

Schuwirth spoke to Dezeen at the Castellolí race track in Catalunya, Spain, where Audi held a demonstration of its piloted driving technology, inviting guests to ride in a self-driving RS7 vehicle as it hurtled round the track at speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour.

Audi Piloted Driving is a form of self-driving technology whereby a human driver remains legally in charge of the vehicle even if the car's computer is doing all the work. Dezeen first tested the concept last year, when editor Anna Winston was filmed as she drove around a circuit in one of the vehicles.

Audi's super-fast driverless car is fitted with a mini film studio
Last year, Dezeen editor Anna Winston tried out the Audi Piloted Driving technology when she took a journey in a car that can drive itself at speeds of up to 220 kilometres per hour

"In the piloted driving situation, you are always responsible even if you drive hands-off, but it's you who's responsible if something happens with the car," he said.

This approach gets round existing legislation in many countries where a human must retain ultimate control of a vehicle, ruling out fully autonomous vehicles for the time being.

Piloted driving offers an interim step, allowing drivers to let the car take over in traffic jams, in low-speed urban driving or other low-risk situations.

"We do not believe that the potential of autonomous driving is just about security and comfort," Schuwirth said. "Cars are the last place on the planet, besides maybe your room in your flat, where you can be on your own. Maybe you simply you want to do something different in your car, such as relax, communicate, talk, dream or think."

Earlier this year Germany announced that car brands would soon be able to use sections of the A9 highway between Munich and Berlin for testing autonomous vehicles.

Schuwirth said this would allow the country to catch up with the USA, where some states already allow self-driving vehicles on the roads, giving an advantage to American manufacturers.

Describing a scenario in the not-too-distant future, Schuwirth said: "Your car wakes you up at four o'clock in the morning, picks you up and drives you autonomously the entire way from Munich to Berlin. You can sleep, you can prepare for your meeting, you can call your friends and family, do whatever you want and you enter Berlin in a very relaxed mood."

He added: "The car becomes something different. Not just something to get you from A to B, but something more."