comfort in mobility Self-driving technology predicted to bring home style into your car
Tiled floors, a comfortable bed, plant, surround-screen TV and a coffee machine. Not your house but a future vision of luxury autonomous motoring.
Robot flight attendants, fresh coffee on tap, augmented reality games, surround-screen TVs, and luxurious beds. Designers and engineers working for the world’s leading automotive companies are busy creating a compelling vision of autonomous travel, ready for the moment when the technology finally catches up with the dream.
Of the myriad predicted uses for autonomous vehicles, none is more seductive than the idea of private, long-distance travel. Volvo had a shot at this with its 360c concept revealed last September, which predicted we’d prefer to stretch out, snooze and let the car transport us overnight than experience the pain of short-haul travel. Put the bed upright however and suddenly we’re in our office, a feature that, day-to-day, allows us to start work earlier and therefore live further away from the cities we commute to.
Being productive throughout mobility
“It’s one example of the impact when we remove the burden of unproductive travel time,” says Mårten Levenstam, Volvo’s Head of Corporate Strategy. The extension of the car as a bedroom is already here, says Tom De Vleesschauwer, Head of Mobility Research at IHS Markit, who tells of workers in Jakarta leaving the house at 3am to avoid the awful traffic, then dozing in their car outside the office. “Manufacturers are consulting on how to make their cars more comfortable for sleeping,” he said.
Today, car companies work incredibly hard to finesse the driving touchpoints – the steering wheel, the gear lever, the pedal, the touchscreen. In an autonomous car, these have disappeared and suddenly we’re focused more on the materials, on the location of the table or on the view from the windows – much like we are at home, in fact. Designers acknowledge that home life will intrude more and more into autonomous car space, at least for high-end private cars. Renault’s EZ Ultimo limousine, first shown last October, included a parquet floor made of walnut, marble detailing, velvet seats and controls inspired by those on high-end stereos.
Audi’s AI:ME, revealed at the Shanghai auto show this year, is more of a city car but for private use and included wooden struts in the roof that encouraged creepers planted into the back to grow along. Yes, actual houseplants in your car. This home-from-home look taking shape has inspired interior supplier Auria to come up with flooring that resembles hardwood and even tiling, but without the attendant weight.
The big problem automakers are grappling with is how to get passengers locked into an infotainment ecosystem provided by themselves, rather than Google or Apple, when autonomous technology finally allows unlimited smartphone interaction. Audi’s Aicon autonomous limousine provided one answer by turning the whole windscreen into one giant wraparound TV, with shows or films accessed by voice control.
BMW thinks perhaps the battle has already been lost. “It will be very hard to get people off their phones, their ecosystem,” says Markus Seidel, General Manager at BMW Research, New Technologies and Innovations. Instead BMW is working on augmented reality games that use the motion of the car and the view out of the windscreen to create a unique experience. Pretend to blast traffic away? Float down Venice’s canals on a gondola? All guaranteed to create extra revenue, BMW hopes. BMW is also proposing a version of a flight attendant – part virtual, part robot – that’ll create that business class ambience by proffering freshly brewed coffee from an extendable arm. You might wonder how all his digital entertainment is being dealt with when the autonomous car is already producing and consuming so much data, just to safely drive the car from A to B. Fujitsu is tackling this with a technology that compresses image data to make it much ‘lighter’, as well as allowing a cloud storage system to collect the data on demand, for example when hooked to a WIFI network.
AI is steering, we are passengers.
All this innovation and seduction from car makers is, in part, in response to the fear that once we’ve handed over the driving to a computer, we won’t care what brand of car we’re ferried around in – the dreaded ‘autonomous anonymous’ as Jaguar’s Head of Design Ian Callum memorably put it. In cities, this is perhaps inevitable, as cube designs win out in the battle to fit the maximum amount of people in a vehicle with the smallest footprint possible.
Daimler’s Smart small-car brand challenged that norm in 2017 with the EQ Vision, a two-seat shared autonomous city car that applied appealing rounded forms to the exterior while keeping the brand’s trademark compactness. You don’t have to share the space, but if you want to (thereby reducing the cost), you can accept fellow passengers pre-selected by the app, based on shared interests you’ve listed on your profile. Also accentuating the sociable side of autonomous shared cars was Renault’s EZ-GO concept, an urban vehicle for four that arranged everyone in a U-shape. Instead of accessing it through a door, passengers instead walked up a rear-mounted ramp made even easier by lifting a hatch in the roof.
This solution would be ideal for wheelchair users, who will benefit hugely from widespread autonomous car use. VW in the US is already consulting with advocacy groups for those with disabilities to find out the best way to ensure wheelchair accessibility for future autonomous cars is built in from the start.
But some automotive companies are happy just to embrace the cube. Supplier Robert Bosch created a cuboid autonomous shuttle to show off its vision of what a shared autonomous robotaxi might look like. Among the innovations included were cameras linked to a detection software that could spot not just items such as handbags left behind, but also dirt like chewing gum. That would trigger a warning that the vehicle needed to be cleaned. We might not all be able to afford autonomous cars with surround screen TVs or robot flight attendants, but we’d at least like the future not to be dirty.
About Shift Automotive
SHIFT Automotive 2019 is taking place from 10-11 September 2019 in Berlin, in conjunction with IFA, the world’s leading trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances.