Self-driving cars might initially stun people with its futuristic display, but eventually, people will adapt, just like they did with the automobile, elevator and smartphone, according to Molly Nix, Staff Product Designer at Uber Technologies Group.

Nix, who focuses on the user experience of self-driving cars, hosted a panel Wednesday, March 14 at SXSW on how the ride-hailing company is designing cars for a driverless and "safe" future.

Nix said in the 1800s, many people were skeptical about vehicles because they weren't familiar with the new technology. Initially, they were shown as circus exhibits. But now, "it's hard to imagine a world without them," she said to a packed ballroom at the newly-opened Fairmont hotel in Austin, Texas.

In a similar way, people also became used to the fact that the elevator could take them to their destination without an attendant, with the designers using lyricless melodies, also known as "elevator music," to simulate a comfortable and trustworthy environment, according to Nix.

Molly Nix with Uber speaks at SXSW March 14, 2018.
Chelsea Cunningham

Many people in the audience snapped pictures and quickly tapped away on their laptops as Nix spoke about what Uber believes was the last technological wave from extraordinary to ordinary: the evolution of the cell phone. Nix compared the time when companies were trying to make their mark with a universal design in the newly formed cell phone market to the wild west. Nix said there was no set standard until Apple stepped in with their iPhone and changed the game.

Now, Nix said Uber hopes to do the same as Apple, and hopefully, change the way people think about fitting vehicles into society and how people spend their time. But Nix said the most critical reason why Uber has been working on driverless car technology for the last 8 years is to save lives.

"Every year, 1.3 million people die in automobile accidents. And in the U.S., at least, over 94 percent of those accidents are due to human error; this means that the deaths are preventable," she said. "Computers see better than we do. They don't drink and drive. They don't text behind the wheel. They can react more quickly."

Uber's self-driving car initiative has already begun. Since September 2016, Nix said Uber has given over 50,000 trips to riders in self-driving cars in Pittsburg and Phoenix -- granted there's still a vehicle operator inside to supervise the vehicle. Nonetheless, those trips have helped Uber tweak their software, adjust the user's experience and hone three necessary principles: transparency, control, and comfort.

In terms of transparency, Nix said an overload of information for the user isn't always the best course of action. According to Nix, just like in regular uber rides, people will be able to see their tripped mapped out on their phone. But in a self-driving uber, it goes a step further, whereas the map will not only show the track to the destination, but it will also be able to show that the technology registers pedestrians and other foreign objects.

"If the rider is able to glean information as quickly as possible -- for example, does the car see this object in the road? Is it going to stop for it? -- it will actually help build trust in the underlying technology," Nix said.

While transparency might be simple enough for a rider to wrap their head around with self-driving technology, giving up control to a machine involves shifting consumer ideology.

"We're getting cars to where everything already is," she said.

Nix argued that with most technologies humans interact with daily, the person controls the end experience. For instance, a thermostat doesn't involve much human interaction with the machine's nuts and bolts to heat or cool down a home.

"Control for uber riders means your ride your way," she said.

While on the Uber app, riders will have the option to either take a driverless ride or take one with an actual driver.

"While you may be giving up control of the vehicle, what you're actually gaining is control of your time. It's really freeing to be able to sit back, relax and get focused -- all without worrying whether or not the vehicle will get you there safely," Nix said.

During the development phase, comfort is still heavily reliant on the vehicle supervisor for the self-driving technology, and people are able to use the visual tracking map to ease their concerns. But one thing that the ride-hailing company isn't depending on while they work the kinks out and work on improving rider experience is a voice assistant.

"The technology is actually not yet ready for our self-driving cabin experience," she said.

As has been heard with different voice assistants for different devices, sometimes there's a point when it says "it doesn't understand." Nix said if this was used in a self-driving car, it would erode confidence in the technology because people might group the voice assistant with the software's overall intelligence.

"We don't want to create a scenario where if you have a bad experience talking with a voice assistant, you basically assume that the underlying self-driving software is not capable," said Nix. She added that there may be a point when a voice assistant is added as a feature later, but right now, they're more focused on the self-driving software and building customer trust in it.

For now, the technology is still budding. Nix said Uber is using the 50,000 self-driving trips they've acquired in Phoenix and Pittsburg, as well as feedback from volunteer participants who've ridden in driverless cars in their fake Uber city, to measure how people react to the new technology.

Nix said the majority response to the technology is awe for the first few minutes and curiosity. But, "once they get a sense of how it all works, it's not too long before they're back on their phones and not paying attention. At the end of the day, this is just a car. And it's just like any other trip you've ever taken," Nix said.

According to Nix, while the experience might not seem that exciting, it's the goal the ride-hailing company is shooting for because it means the rider has enough trust in the technology to not pay attention to it. Before the technology will be fully ready for the market, Nix said they're still working on improving the software so that it understands unlocking and locking the vehicle and stopping in proper locations to pick up riders. She said these are qualities human beings know instinctively but machines still need to learn.