How time marches on for the driverless car – Part II

Continued from Part I 

The car of 2026

So, what can we reasonable guess that the car of 2026 will be like? According to Stefan Burgstaller, three major disrupters will inform the design of cars ten years from now. First, there will be stronger rules controlling vehicle emissions, which will likely drive development of power drive train technology away from combustion engines. Electrical propulsion will become more commonplace along with fuel cells and other alternative power technologies. The other disruptors are, not surprisingly, autonomous driving and connectivity.

If the steps and legislation outlined earlier are put into effect, and if the government gives in to Google, ten years from now there will probably be driverless cars without steering wheels. Those that belong to private owners will be versions of the “living room on wheels,” originally described in 1930s popular mechanic’s magazines. They will probably come with little or no visible instrumentation, since none would be necessary, except, perhaps, for a single monitor screen, there to display travel information or systems warnings when there are engine problems. Since most dedicated driverless cars will likely be for-hire vehicles, their interiors will generally be utilitarian, comfortable and with infotainment screens and hubs but not necessarily much else. Their service lives will only be a couple years, during which time they will be used almost non-stop and then sold, or discarded, and replaced by new dedicated vehicles which will be almost identical in appearance, not unlike the Checker Cabs of long ago which never seemed to change in appearance.

Of course, it's entirely possible that by 2026, the driverless car out on the road will not yet be a dedicated vehicle. It may well have a steering wheel and brake pedals and can be driven when its operator desires to. In a sense it doesn't matter, because the social and economic forces that guarantee the driverless car's viability, will also largely insure that the dedicated, steering wheel-less configuration will be an inevitability.

If the OEMs had their way, rollout of dedicated, driverless cars would probably not happen before 2030, says Paolo Malabuyo, a UX design consultant who worked for years in the automotive sector. “Arguably it has not been a bad thing moving very incrementally forward, as they've done over the last few decades, rolling out proven technology. With things like anti-lock brakes, cruise control, the changes have all been relatively invisible. OEMs try to roll things out slowly in order to reduce risk. The new companies like Tesla and Google aren't part of that tradition. They've done a great job of showing that you don't have to move that slowly. But they also don't fully understand cars are actually multi-ton cruise missiles that each year kill more than 35,000 people. So far, the US government keeps saying ‘No’ to Google's requests to build cars without steering wheels. Google says they are ready to roll it out. The question is whether society is ready. The policy people are still saying ‘No’.”

A divergence is going to come

With so much attention being focused on driverless cars, there's another side of the debate that almost no one bothers the think about; the cars of 2026 that are not driverless. There will always be people who prefer driving a car over having it driven for them. If on one hand, there will be dedicated, driverless cars, there will also be cars, optimised for drivers. In the last few years, what with the rise of telematics and the connected car, designers have had to learn a great deal the best ways to organise and arrange the driver's area so that distraction in minimised and awareness and engagement is maximised. It is accomplished by how the instrument clusters are arranged and placed, even the kinds of typeface used for warning flashes. The non-driverless cars of 2026 will be dazzling driving machines designed to make good drivers even better.

It is probable these cars will feature a number of new technologies in order to improve the human-machine interface (HMI). Not long ago, there was an expectation that augmented reality in the form of heads-up displays (HUDS) might figure prominently. But the recent debut of Google Glass has, at least for the moment, cooled a lot of ardour in that department. “HUDs are expensive, take up a lot of space and they work much better at night than in daytime environments,” says Malabuyo. “You might do better by having better arranged instrument clusters on the dashboard. The driver could quickly glance at them and get the information they need. What people forget is that a lot of this kind of technology was designed for fighter pilots, who are highly trained. Car drivers are completely untrained and will probably always be that way. The HMI needs to reflect this.”

What might work much better, is haptics, which deal with touch and tactile feedback. Unlike vision or hearing, which interacts with the brain's higher cognitive functions, touch interacts with the brain at a much more basic level via the reptilian cortex. This is particularly good for when the driver is following driving directions, which is how smartwatches are most likely to work within the connected space. Haptics are also useful in creating tactile feedback that could be used in conjunction with touchscreens in order to lessen the driver glance time while using them.

According to Stefan Marti, vice-president for future experience at Harman, haptics might be best used in a multi-mode form, in conjunction with other sensory cues, such as sound and visual. “In a very generic sense, multi-modality basically means that the system you have, that you want to react with, can react to you in various different means.  You can talk to it, you can press a button, or you can show it. It's almost coming close to human interaction in that there are different ways we can interact with each other.  Multi-modality is essentially about creating options and alternatives.”

While the driverless car will be designed to reflect the needs of the Millennials, who will at that point be firmly in the saddle, running things, much of what will be informing the design of the non-driverless car will be the older generation; the Baby Boomers and Generation X drivers who have the financial means, who don't want to give up driving but who, nevertheless, are going to need some automated driver assistance to keep them from getting into accidents. Their cars will all have advanced automated driver assistance capabilities that can instantly step in and correct a driver error. Ultimately, these cars will also be able to operate without driver input in a full-driverless mode.

In other words, while the driverless and non-driverless cars will probably look very different but when it comes to connectivity and autonomous driving, their commonality will, nevertheless, be extremely high. It is likely the electronics will depend heavily on replaceable modules to facilitate easy upgrading. Within the near-term, the biggest opportunities will probably be in developing fused sensor packages, which will combine inputs from include short- and longer-range radars, along with electronic scanning radars, 3D and other cameras that will eliminate blind spots and create better situational pictures. The same goes for technology that connects vehicles to other vehicles and to the surrounding infrastructure.

2026 may still be ten years away but, for the automotive industry, that translates to just five new products so, in that sense, it’s here right now.

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