Soon the driving seat could become a crowded place

We’re about 20% along the path to full autonomous driving, at least as defined by the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers’ famous five-stage progression chart.

Although there are plenty of assisted driving systems in place on current vehicle models, cars are still overwhelmingly dependent on their flesh-and-blood pilots for operation.

It almost goes without saying that as the systems we pack our autos with become rapidly more sophisticated, taking more functionalities out the driver’s hands, the less work a driver will be required to do. Within a very few years, we’ll likely be in a situation where that person will only have to operate the vehicle in a very few, special instances.

But that’s the rub. How is the human-machine interaction between car and person going to evolve, and what challenges will it have to overcome in order to get us to that exalted Level 5?

The first is an all-too-human failing, complacency. You’re several hours along the motorway in your nearly-autonomous car, lulled nearly to sleep by the monotonous rhythm of the road. Suddenly, there’s a situation the system, with all of its sophistication, cannot handle. You need to take the wheel yourself, very much sooner than later. That potentially jarring transition can be fatal if the driver is not kept at, or quickly transitioned to, sufficient alertness.

One fairly direct way to deal with this is for a system to ensure that the driver receives alarms when falling into a complacent state. General Motors (GM) was an early innovator in such technology, with an emphasis on monitoring. GM’s efforts in this sphere rely on a series of sensors and cameras to ascertain how awake the driver is by measuring the rate at which they blink. If the system detects a sleepy state, it alerts the driver in no uncertain terms using audible and even sensory alarms, wrenching them back into the here-and-now.

Of course, if a system can keep the driver in a constant state of alertness, rather than snapping him or her to attention, so much the better. The Mobius 2 system from France’s Valeo envisions a neat solution; it can “mirror” a smartphone or tablet on the driver’s display, which can then be interacted with via controls on the steering wheel. The driver, engaged with digital content, theoretically remains in a state of readiness; when the time comes to take over operation, even the quickest of transitions are almost seamless.

As the role of the driver changes, so too will the structure and function of the driving seat. The classic model of a person perched upright in front of a steering wheel and a bank of controls will morph into something different. What might that look like?

Perhaps it’ll be multi-modal systems such as Volvo’s Concept 26. In the driver engaged position, Concept 26’s seat would closely resemble our present standard – close access to steering wheel, controls easily at hand, etc. But when the system assumes operation, the person occupying the seat could opt for either “relaxed” or “create” mode. The former pushes back and reclines the seat, and retracts the steering wheel; the driver then becomes a passenger sat more comfortably, with plenty of legroom. This is largely the same with create mode; the twist is that a small table slides out from the inside of the driver-side door, and a display pops up from the dashboard. Voilá, instant workstation.

Perhaps Level 3-plus driving seats will take the shape of BMW’s wild Vision Next 100 concept car. A set of small triangles on the dashboard, matching similar shapes on the body atop the wheel wells, would raise to show their red-coloured sides, dramatically alerting the driver that she/he needs to take control. A steering wheel – well, more like a steering rectangle with grips on each side – would emerge from the front panel, with the vehicle shifting into “boost” mode for human operation. Once machine autonomy becomes an option again, the driver may choose to transition back into “ease” mode, with the system providing enough room for him or her to enjoy being a mere passenger once more.

As with many aspects of assisted-to-autonomous vehicle operation, there are many creative minds at work coming up with ways to shift from driver to system, and back again. But – again, like so much of the technology coming down the pipe in these still-early days –this raises another concern, that of standardisation. Despite a number of proposals, just now we have neither hard legal parameters nor a complete set of commonly-agreed standards/guidelines for Level 3 (and beyond) operation. This makes it a somewhat dicey game for solutions providers to envision, and plan for, what might be expected in this aspect from the market and/or by the law.

Regardless, auto makers and systems specialists are motoring ahead with proprietary features, along with their own concepts of how driver and machine can communicate and share the piloting duties. There’s little telling which of these might become the norm but one thing’s for certain – the driving seat, and its occupant’s role, is soon to change dramatically.

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