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Automated driving’s next stop: User experience

Can a smart car truly blend into your home? Hyundai thinks so. (Photo: Hyundai)

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Jerry Mooney
Jerry Mooney
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Which direction will autonomous mobility take in the future? As showcased at CES 2017, companies are starting to move beyond driverless safety systems – and explore a holistic user experience instead.

After watching presentations from Faraday Future, Toyota and Hyundai at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show it is clear, beyond any doubt, that autonomous vehicles are a part of the future landscape. Each company has their pace, concerns and enthusiasm about the technology, but the eventuality of the technology has shifted the focus from the mere capabilities of the driverless technology to the culture and user experience of robots taking the wheel. 

Moving Beyond ADAS

CES 2017 showed each company displaying a different level of aggression as far as adopting autonomous driving beyond the level 2 ADAS systems. All seemed to agree, however, that the industry must begin looking beyond what driverless technology will do functionally and begin imagining the implications from a user experience standpoint. ADAS systems were designed with the idea of increasing driver convenience as a byproduct, but safety was a primary force. This is still critical to the process moving forward, however, companies are looking beyond the simple equations created by sensors and improved driver assist technology.

Human Attention Spans Improve When Engaged

Some of the desire to improve the infotainment systems comes from data that shows drivers are safer when they are partially engaged while driving. Truck drivers use CB radios and people listen to music in order to keep their minds from completely drifting away from their important job of driving the vehicle. But when a car is completely taken over by a machine pilot, then the desire to stay engaged in the driving process naturally diminishes – the complacency effect kicks in. However, as we transition to level 3 autonomy, the driver’s attention is still needed. This shifted the companies’ focus to driver experience.

Connected Reality Creates New Challenges

Despite all of the warnings, people are currently texting, Tweeting and engaging in digital communications while in commute, even without using autonomous driving features. This will only increase as the driver’s responsibilities decrease. But there can be a gap in driver awareness and system takeover time. Obviously, when not required to focus intently on the details of navigation and control of the vehicle, our minds wander.

According to Toyota executive Bob Carter, humans have a difficult time focusing on a single task for even 20 seconds. He had the audience try to track a second hand of a watch for 20 seconds and clap when the audience witnessed a skip. There were two and the second skip was missed by more than the first. This happened in merely the span of 20 seconds. Sustaining focus for much longer periods of time is challenging.

This is especially true when fatigue, stress, anger or other distractions are factored in. That is why Toyota’s concept includes AI sensing of the driver. If the driver shows signs of fatigue, anger or distraction, the AI responds accordingly. For example, if the driver seems sleepy, the AI lowers the temperature of the car and adjusts the seat to a posture that creates more attentive behavior. If the driver seems angry or aggressive, then the AI will change the lighting and perhaps music to something more soothing. 

Toyota unveiled its new Concept-i car at CES 2017. (Photo: Toyota)

Hardware Not Vehicles

A persistent expression at CES 2017 among auto-industry insiders was that they needed to stop thinking of cars as cars and instead, think of them as a friend or partner in travel. Toyota revealed their concept car that was focused on keeping the driver engaged. The car is voice responsive and would display your media in all directions via augmented reality. This way you could see the road and your surroundings, but still play your games, communicate, and browse the connected world.

Even though Toyota showed some forward thinking and vision with their new concept car, the feeling at the presentation was that they were not committed to this car or this vision. There was a murmur that concepts like this and their hydrogen fuel cell car are more for public relations and that they don’t really ever expect to make these cars.

Getting ready for the Faraday Future live demo. (Photo: Jerry Mooney)

UX Supplanting Safety as Focus

An increasingly important element in the development of driverless technology is the user experience. This is the transition from guardian to chauffeur. The ADAS systems acted as a guardian but the next levels must increasingly become chauffeurs. It doesn’t suffice to have the technology simply act as a driver, similar to a taxi. People want to engage, feel their driver is their friend who can augment and improve their commute, not simply get them from point A to point B.

Toyota termed this as kinetic warmth. They want their AI platform to learn about the co-pilot and create a relationship with him or her. Through machine learning, this would allow the system to predict various settings of the car, and not just seat positions or musical playlists, but apps and software to be preset and create personalized environments for each driver.

To do this, they introduced Concept-i at CES 2017, which will create a head-up 3D display in all directions, so the driver can look at an augmented reality screen while they co-pilot the car. Toyota wants this to be a friendly relationship where the vehicle grows with the driver. Each driving experience adds to the data and improves future experiences.

As level 3 technology rolls out, this will be primarily to keep drivers engaged, but going forward, there is a real need to integrate a full user experience within the vehicle in order to be attractive to users. 

A jawdropper at CES 2017: Faraday Future's FF 91. (Photo: Faraday Future)

Home Office Taken to A New Level

Hyundai took it even further with their concept being that the car becomes indistinguishable from a room in your home or office and even becomes a modular component of each. Instead of parking in a garage and then entering the house through a door, the future Hyundai would cozy up to the house and the car door would open to attach to an opening in the home, then seal itself to become an additional room.

The interior would resemble more of a modernly furnished apartment or house instead of the interior of a car. This would allow for transportation to feel like you were still at home, eliminating the sense that you must arrive at your destination, because you are already there. 

The office and the car of the future – will they become one? (Photo: Hyundai)

Autonomous driving is happening, the technology challenges are solvable, so the focus must pivot to how humans interact with this technology. Therefore it is key to create kinetic environments that allow the technology to grow and engage its human partners. And the companies that ultimately create the best user experience will have the best consumer product as safety and viable transportation become passé. 

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Jerry Mooney
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