Outside The Box: Come The Car Tech Revolution.

New Technology Is Rapidly Changing The Potential Design Of The Car Of The Future As Well As The Driver Experience. But For Most Of Us, Progress Feels Like A Steady Learning Curve Rather Than A Light Speed Transition.

From next generation head-up displays or HUDs — transparent screens that place information directly in a driver’s line of sight and reduce the need to look away from the road — to much larger augmented reality (AR) displays designed to enhance the driver’s view of the road with a rich array of navigation prompts and safety cues, our relationship with the car is changing rapidly. But are we really seeing designers go ‘outside the box’ and create concept cars that no longer conform to so called standard designs? The answer is no, not just yet.

Of course, once we move into autonomy, we may start to see some really unique tech advances, such as actual methods of controlling the car, like sidesticks or joysticks replacing the comparatively big lump of metal that forms the steering wheel, column and pedal box, which are so good at causing injury as they deform into the cabin and body under crash conditions. Designers could even make the stick removable as the ultimate anti-theft device. We now have the technology (helped by fully autonomous vehicles) to make this a reality.

It’s very likely that within the next 20 years or so, new cars won’t have steering wheels or acceleration and brake pedals at all. They won’t need any of these things because they will be driving themselves. We’re not quite there yet, but when it does eventually happen the shift to cars without steering wheels and pedals will be revolutionary.

Right now, though, the real design revolution is arguably in augmented reality (AR) displays, such as Panasonic’s AR system that dispenses with the combiner screen and instead projects images directly onto the inside of the windscreen. Processing information gathered by eight cameras mounted on the outside of the car, the technology augments the driver’s view with information from up to 10m in front of the car, and — with a field-of-view of 12° to the horizontal and 5° to the vertical — is claimed to cover a larger portion of the driver’s observable world than any other automotive HUD. Cameras inside the car track the position of the driver’s head and eyes to ensure that this augmented view is always placed precisely within line of sight.

We are also hearing about virtual windscreen technology, which, along with displaying AR information on the windscreen, is also exploring the use of screens in the car’s roof pillars to eliminate blind spots and give the driver a 360° view around the vehicle. Jaguar Land Rover, for example, has been exploring a concept dubbed Transparent Bonnet, which uses cameras in the grill to stream data to a HUD and create a see-through view of the terrain through the bonnet.

This, in itself, is pretty exciting stuff and by no means restricted to traditional information such as speed, different warnings, navigation and safety — lane departure systems for example. The use of AR to provide live contextual information offers huge possibilities in connectivity. Imagine a scenario where the AR technology indicates with an arrow where a restaurant is and, because the car is connected, you get the ETA and then book a table.

Of course we’ve been integrating more and more IT functionality into vehicles for some time now — can you actually remember a time before hands-free phone calls? It feels like this tech has been around for a long time and, with the rapid increase in the development of Internet of Things (IoT), functions such as monitoring mileage, engine maintenance, and upcoming road conditions in real time will become the norm.

Ford, for example, will launch its new piece of hardware, known as SmartLink, in the USA this summer. This piece of tech is specifically designed for customers wishing to switch their regular cars into a connected vehicle, allowing 2010–2016 model year Ford and Lincoln cars that do not come pre-equipped with a modem to be more connected. The SmartLink is fitted with a GPS chip and a 4G/LTE modem which means it can connect to a user’s smartphone through a companion app, allowing them to access useful connected features including remote locking and engine start, vehicle location tracking, and fuel status checks. As well as having a companion smartphone app, the SmartLink will also be able to connect to a web portal. Users will be able to access information regarding their vehicle’s health status which should flag up any maintenance issues and then schedule maintenance appointments with their dealer via the app.

What Ford are actually doing with SmartLink is teaching old cars new connected tricks i.e.you don’t need a new car to take advantage of new technology. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the two major players in the smartphone marketplace, Apple and Google, are also keenly interested in getting their own products installed and integrated into vehicles. Apple’s CarPlay is pretty straightforward: You plug in your iPhone and CarPlay automatically appears on the screen. It looks exactly like the iOS interface on your phone, but with only a core group of apps available: Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Now Playing, Podcasts, and Audio.

Google’s Android Auto, meanwhile, works by projecting Android apps onto the in-car display after the phone has been plugged in to the car via USB. The phone itself does all the majority of the work. Phone calls are handled over Bluetooth. This opens up the possibility to use mobile apps such as Google Maps, Google Play Music, Google Now etc, although it has to be said that there’s not actually an app to interact with, but you get the important part, the message.

Apple is working closely with many manufacturers to integrate its existing CarPlay system into as many models as possible. Google on the other hand is taking a slightly different approach and setting its sights on replicating or replacing your vehicle’s instrument cluster and diagnostic systems with a system of its own.

Fast forward a few years, i.e. in 2020–21 and hopefully the world of the connected car will be running smoothly, built on 5G technology, and those of us who are currently still having difficulty connecting our iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with our car, will be getting to grips with AR displays and wondering why the steering-wheel sensor has suddenly stopped monitoring our brain activity.

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