ReadWriteDrive is an ongoing series covering the future of transportation.

The star attractions of many major international auto shows are the way-out futuristic concept vehicles that stand little to no chance of going into production. These crazy high-tech cars are an invitation to imagine an alternative transportation reality in which vehicles can fly, swim, think, and move us— physically and psychically—in unpredictable ways.

But the latest concept vehicle from Rinspeed, a Swiss tuner shop known for exotic cars, reveals that today’s automotive technology is quickly catching up with the future.

The concept car, dubbed “XchangE,” is intended to be a meditation on the interior layout of cars when—in about a decade—vehicles are capable of completely driving themselves. This will relegate passengers into a passive role, and turn car cabins into living room and office spaces on wheels.

Rinspeed will display the XchangE at the upcoming 2014 Geneva Motor Show, which will be taking place March 6-16, 2014.

Back to the Present

Previous far-out concept cars from Rinspeed have been dazzling, both in their vision of future mobility and their creative combination of upper- and lowercase letters. There was the 2008 sQuba, a Lotus Elise that doubled as a speedy submarine.  There was the 2009 shape-shifting iChange, a concept sports car that transformed its seating configuration—with the swipe of an iPhone—for one, two or three passengers.

And in 2010, Rinspeed unveiled the UC micro electric car, piloted by a joystick instead of a steering wheel, and dockable into a network of drive-in high-speed trains.

However, with the XchangE, which uses the Tesla Model S as its platform, we are starting to see designs and technologies—until very recently relegated to the realm of science fiction—crop up in cars available at your friendly local neighborhood auto dealership.

In Rinspeed's press release, we are told that the XchangE can communicate with other cars, the road, and cloud-based services via an LTE network. Travel-specific services, such as warning messages about road conditions and recommendations for efficient routing, are available in real time.

Wait a second. Dashboard displays and mobile apps already offer these types of features. Vehicle-to-vehicle systems using DSRC and LTE are being widely tested.  Admittedly, at this stage, the stream of data still needs to be interpreted into driving decisions by a human being.

The next step is to use a data feed to alter and control core operations of the vehicle, such as acceleration and braking. Today, many cars have similar driver-assist systems—although mostly using inputs from on-board sources such as radar, lasers, and sensors. Rinspeed says this technology will free up passengers to read, listen to music, surf the web, play games, watch movies on demand, or conduct video conference calls.

Again, it appears that we have already caught up to the future of driving. Just a few years ago, auto show concept cars with an array of screens providing navigation, entertainment, and driver assistance were cast as something our kids or grandkids might one day enjoy.

The XchangE concept continues to convey these features as aspirational—but they can already be found in Tesla’s oversized dashboard display, or for that matter, in the smart phones and tablets that passengers bring aboard even the jankiest hoopties on the road.

Joysticks and Joy Rides

The chief difference between Rinspeed’s vision and what is already happening is that, in today’s cars, one person—namely, the driver—has to look up and drive.  That requires a steering wheel.

The XchangE’s steering wheel uses hand-recognition and transparent multifunction keys, and can be moved to the middle of the dashboard—essentially becoming a “steer-by-wire” control console, somewhat similar to gaming controls or, according to Rinspeed, a little bit like what is used modern jet aircraft. (Pretty cool, although I wonder about reliability and safety.)

If we can truly relieve the driver of the responsibility to pilot a vehicle, then the biggest opportunity will be to redesign seating configurations. This is much more about industrial design than software design.

For the XchangE concept, Rinspeed collaborated with Otto Bock Mobility Solutions, a manufacturer of medical prosthetics, to allow seating for the driver and passengers not just to recline, but to more radically tilt and swivel into 20 possible seating arrangements—creating ideal accommodations for workstation productivity or media consumption.

Once more, since we are already driving around with our phones in our hands and in-vehicle infotainment systems in front of our faces—despite safety concerns—this vision of autonomous travel, even if we can't totally recline, is looking increasingly mundane. 

Not at all like Rinspeed’s bold but slightly creepy photo illustrations of a turtleneck-clad couple riding an autonomous Tesla into a Sci-Fi movie landscape from the 1950s, back when the future was still futuristic.