There's no denying that self-driving cars are the future of travel. Elon Musk's Tesla Model 3, unveiled in March and not set to roll out until late 2017, already has nearly 400,000 orders and counting. If everything goes according to Musk's predictions, soon there will be fewer cars on the road and, as a result, less urban traffic congestion and fewer car accidents.

While all of this is hugely important, this vision of the future is missing one very important element: enjoyment. At least that's what Tokyo-based designer and entrepreneur Morihiro Harano thought when he looked at self-driving cars. What about the thrill of the open road? The adventure of the road trip? He wanted to design a vehicle to preserve those very human experiences--without requiring a human at the wheel.

So Harano set out to build a self-driving concept car that could make the journey along the path of humankind's longest known path of migration, from the heart of Africa, across Asia, and down through the Americas. He convinced Honda to partner with him on the project, then recruited U.K.-based design agency Map to help create a car that could navigate extreme climates and terrains. The resulting project--which became a slick branding campaign for Honda--is a series of vehicles that exist only as small-scale concepts but offer a glimpse into what the future of self-driving cars could look like.

Map, primarily an industrial and product design firm, had no experience working with vehicles. This was deliberate--Harano and Honda wanted to use a design firm that hadn't worked with cars before so its thinking wouldn't be limited to what vehicles have been capable of in the past. "Rather than starting with the point of view of a car and trying to move a car forward using technology," says Map lead designer Jon Marshall, "it's a complete rethink."

The original plan was to design a single Transformers-esque vehicle that could make the whole journey, morphing with each new landscape. That proved too far-fetched--any one vehicle that could make that trip would be better suited for a sci-fi movie, and the group wanted the technology to be grounded in reality.

So the firm broke the trip into seven terrains: the African savannah, the deserts of Africa and the Middle East, the Himalayas, the islands of Japan, the frozen Bering Strait, the paved U.S. West Coast, and the Central and South American jungles. Map designed seven cars with seven unique sets of features. The Tundra Sled is dragged by drones that can detect cracks in the ice beneath it. The Mountain Climber has an arm to clear rock falls around the vehicle, letting its occupants enjoy views from rougher roads.

When designing the Desert Train to traverse the Sahara, the team knew that riders would need to carry all their supplies with them. Drawing inspiration from the tethered camel trains used to transport goods and people across the desert, they broke the vehicle into three sections dragged behind a drive train. Two of the sections carry cargo, and the leading drive train is powered by fuel cell technology--which produces drinkable water as a byproduct. As the kicker, the vehicle expands into a tent and has a built-in set of high-powered speakers.

Before building the cars, Marshall and his team visited Honda's headquarters in Tokyo to learn what types of technology were available to them. Since they didn't have experience building cars, Honda would reel them back in when the designs started straying from what was accurate--or feasible.

While the final designs are small, the Map team wanted to avoid having them feel toy-like. To solve this, they designed the vehicles at full size. Then, once everyone agreed on the final design, they scaled them down. "They're not fictional," Marshall says of the vehicles. "Wherever we were deploying some technology or some engineering, we were keen to make sure it was done in a way that feels appropriate and realistic."

Don't get too excited just yet--there are no plans as of now to do anything more with the designs. While the vehicles are accurate, and the individual elements required to build them in real life do exist, Honda doesn't plan to put them together at full scale. 

But this could be a glimpse into what self-driving technology looks like in the future. A little imagination injected into autonomous driving could take it way beyond standard cars and buses that simply steer themselves. The technology exists--now it's up to forward-thinking entrepreneurs to use it imaginatively.

Published on: Apr 26, 2016