It is easy to distinguish a car built today from a car built 30 years ago: You simply need to look at it. But once you sit in the driver’s seat of each vehicle, you’ll notice a remarkable consistency. Today’s vehicles may be more streamlined and technologically advanced, but the driver interface has remained largely the same for decades.
However, this may not be the case for much longer. We are on the brink of a car-design revolution, one that may eliminate the steering wheel entirely. As manufacturers consider how vehicles will look and behave without a human at the controls, self-driving cars will inspire bold new interiors, human-machine interfaces, connected features, and external aesthetics.
But autonomous driving is just one of several factors that will reinvent the nature of transportation. The auto industry will be working with a treasure trove of new innovations that include wireless connectivity, sensors, improved artificial intelligence, and smart transportation infrastructures. All of these will enable sweeping changes in how we operate and interact with our vehicles.
And the biggest changes may not be the ones you expect.
Over the past few decades, cars have seen some groundbreaking technological advancements. However, many of them are invisible until something goes horribly wrong. Passive and active safety systems, such as airbags, blind-spot alert systems, and refined crash testing and simulations have improved by leaps and bounds in recent history. We’ve come a long way since the lap belt.
In the coming years, safety features will continue to evolve and extend well into the car’s external environment. Automatic braking systems will become the norm, leading to a dramatic reduction in rear-ends and fender-benders. These systems will also enhance pedestrian safety, as sensors will look out for people outside the vehicle as well as inside it.
These technologies will have a significant impact on exterior design. Today’s autonomous vehicles are easy to identify (Hint: They’re the ones with all the bulky sensors and equipment mounted on the roof). More and more vehicles will be equipped with lidar and radar sensors, but they will begin to look more “normal” in the years to come.
That’s because we are still in the “mapping” phase of the self-driving car revolution. Many of the roof-mounted instruments on today’s autonomous cars are built to collect real-time 3D data from the vehicle’s surroundings. Once we are beyond that phase—likely when environmental data is served to each vehicle on the road wirelessly—autonomous car design will become far less clunky.
We may also see new sensors being integrated into each car’s range of safety features. Years ago, the MIT Media Lab developed a high-speed camera that can capture a single beam of light. This sensor is so sensitive that it could be used to see what’s coming around a corner: The camera can capture reflections that are invisible to the human eye, and that data can be used to make predictive braking or steering adjustments inside the car.
As self-driving vehicles began inching toward reality, we’ve seen countless fascinating approaches to reimagined interior design. One common theme is the “living room on wheels.” Recliners, swivel chairs, and big-screen TVs seem to make sense for a vehicle in which a human driver doesn’t need to focus on the road. Why not binge-watch Top Gear instead?
But passengers will still need to be safe, and safety is the drawback to these lounge-style concept interiors. Vehicle interiors are likely to follow a more incremental evolution, and perhaps they will borrow the types of the interiors seen in other vehicles. The business-class seat in an airplane might be the ultimate model: It’s comfortable for sitting, sleeping, eating, and working, and it’s also built for safety.
Therefore, seating arrangements inside vehicles may not be much different than they are today. However, advancements in interface design—and new user expectations—will make in-car entertainment systems a marquee feature. As such, the interiors of future cars will represent a radical departure from today’s vehicles.
While it’s difficult to say exactly what the user experience in our future cars will look like, it will likely be informed by what is now the most common form of personal computer: The smartphone. This human-machine interaction will go well beyond the touchscreen. Voice assistants will be an integral part of our future automobiles, just as they are in today’s phones.
In fact, hand-held devices and wearables are likely to interact with cars on a deeper level than simple Bluetooth connectivity. Particularly in the world of ride-sharing, the personal data on one’s device will help personalize each user’s driving or passenger experience—simply by way of a person stepping inside the vehicle. Of course, this kind of convenience will be accompanied by new data-privacy and security concerns, especially in regard to ride-share vehicles.
Regardless, the car is destined to be the next frontier of the personal-computing revolution—and car manufacturers can’t be expected to create the next generation of in-vehicle systems by themselves. Instead, partnerships between OEMs and suppliers, from specialized startups to tech giants, will become commonplace as cars become more like computers on wheels.
These partnerships will allow in-car interfaces to evolve at breakneck speeds. While the auto industry has been historically rigid in developing and deploying new forms of in-car technology, startups have less fear in trying new ideas and iterating at a fast pace.
Much of this technological evolution will happen on the software front. Rather than having to replace hardware, software updates can be deployed and patched with relative ease. And as connected vehicles become the norm, these services will increasingly be hosted in the cloud.
With all these important systems and entertainment services flowing into our cars, data speeds and processing capabilities will be just as important as horsepower and fuel efficiency. 5G networks may serve as the constantly connected data pipeline for the next generation of vehicles, enabling everything from real-time traffic data to digital interactions with signs and stop lights, to streaming 8K movies in the back seat.
It won’t simply be a matter of acquiring all this data. Because much of it must be analyzed in real-time—often in life-or-death situations—artificial intelligence and high-speed processing in the cloud will become an integral part of our future vehicles.
Many benefits will hinge upon telematics and connected services. Based on data delivered to the car, vehicles will be able to turn on the heat, flip on the air conditioner, or automatically de-ice the windows. And connectivity between cars and emergency systems will automatically clear the roads when an ambulance needs to pass through.
And as our vehicles become more connected, car manufacturers will be battling it out for the best user experience. There will certainly be a period of trial-and-error, but the best experiences will revolve around giving people more free time and making driving experiences stress-free.
So, how will all these transformative changes look from the outside of the vehicle? On one hand, all of the aforementioned innovations could be packed inside a “normal-looking car” before long—maybe 10 years’ time. However, societal factors may make some vehicles of the future look radically different than the vehicles on the road today.
Namely, car ownership is on the decline. And as ride-sharing services continue to grow in popularity, autonomous driving will make its first impact on that industry. Instead of sleek rides that are designed to appeal to consumers’ aesthetic preferences, the first fully autonomous vehicles will be built for comfort, safety, and the ability to accommodate multiple passengers.
The cargo and delivery industries will also be early adopters in the realm of self-driving vehicles. Again, these autonomous vehicles will be designed for specific functions—more like small, medium, and large boxes on wheels rather than the trucks and vans we know today.
But while these radical designs begin to gain traction in commercial industries, cars built for consumers may look much the same—from the outside, at least. As self-driving technologies mature, existing car designs may simply be made “smart” as an option, through additional sensors and components.
So, unless you’re looking at a commercial vehicle, distinguishing between a car built today and a car built 10 years from now may be tricky. But once you sit in the driver’s seat, you could be greeted by a sophisticated interface powered by real-time data services, high-speed networks, artificial intelligence, and the personal data on your phone.
Peter Ivan Dow is global engineering director-electrical, electric and software systems for Tata Technologies. Vikas Gujadhur is head for strategy development for Tata Technologies.
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