Azure recently met with Edward T. Welburn Jr, the vice president of global design for General Motors and Cadillac, to talk about how smart technology is making inroads in automotive design, and what this means for the future of driving. For most car manufacturers, the main thrust is to make cars easier to manoeuvre, which makes the driving experience both safer and more enjoyable.
“It should be a pleasure,” Welburn explained, “and technology should be able to help. It doesn’t always do that; it can be a distraction. Our design team, working in collaboration with engineering, really works to manage the technologies now being brought to our cars.”
Below, we examine six ways the automobile is being incrementally engineered to do all the work for us.
1 It senses for safety
Embedded throughout the modern car, like a nervous system, are various sensors that expand a driver’s circle of awareness, including bumper-mounted cameras that allow drivers to see around sharp corners without pulling into traffic, as well as to view what’s behind them while backing up. Info from these sensors can be relayed to the driver via dash-mounted video screens, or fed directly into an on-board computer.
2 It alerts you to all
When a driver’s ability to make sense of what the sensors are saying fails, alerts kick in to keep him or her focused. Speaking about the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe, Welburn says, “This car will send you a signal – just on the driver’s seat. If you’re drifting off to the right, you’ll feel a little vibration on the right side of the seat. Even if the lines on the road are faded, or it’s raining, the car still picks it up.”
Ford, meanwhile, has pushed the customization of alerts to an extreme with its MyKey system, already in use on over 6 million vehicles. It allows drivers (or their parents) to set an array of alerts including Belt-Minder, which mutes the radio until everyone has buckled up, and Do No Disturb, which will inhibit phone calls and texts messages from the car (while still allowing calls to 911). It also audibly alerts drivers if they’re driving too fast or too slow, or when the gas tank falls below a certain range. A Digital Workload Estimator, still in development, will be able to gauge traffic conditions and a driver’s state of mind, then suppress technology that it determines will only compound a driver’s stress.
3 It decelerates and brakes for you
Like anti-lock brakes before it, an automatic braking system steps in when a driver’s response time may be too slow to avert an accident. Sophisticated sensors can distinguish another vehicle from a person or a stray piece of paper blowing across the road and help slow a car’s movement when appropriate. “If the car in front of you hits the brakes,” says Welburn, “and you’re not paying attention, the car will first warn you, and then it’ll slow down. It’s on its way to being autonomous already.”
4 It parks itself
These systems, around for a decade, are only now becoming commonplace in non-luxury vehicles. Sensors scattered around the car send and receive transmissions from the bumpers, and spur the car’s on-board computer to plot a course, which takes control of steering and acceleration to effortlessly guide the vehicle into a parking spot. Although the manoeuvre is low-risk, since speeds are so low, it represents the first commercially available system that turns the task of steering over to a computer.
5 Its design and technology are seamlessly integrated
Crafting the perfect console – which includes everything from the dashboard, steering wheel and air vents
to controls, innumerable information displays and even the cup-holders – is a process of fine-tuning that never ends. “Every car we bring to market has just got layer after layer of features to it. The research behind them is one of the most challenging areas of designing the car.”
This is especially true considering the console as a whole has to be as simple and streamlined as possible. Touch-activated sliders are replacing knobs, joined by video screens capable of showing more information. Touchscreens also have the advantage of being upgradable, says Welburn. “
We’re developing vehicles that are flexible enough that as technologies evolve, all it needs is a reprogram. Offer them a nice screen, and what comes up on it can change over time.”
The most significant trend here is the emphasis on helping drivers keep their eyes on the road. Buttons on the steering wheel, for instance, let drivers operate the radio by touch, avoiding the need to redirect their gaze, while signals hidden in the rear-view mirrors can show drivers at a glance when another vehicle is in their blind spot – both easier and more effective than craning their heads. Cadillac’s ATS even has a hidden projector that displays data on the windshield, overlaying this info – including current velocity and the speed limit – on the roadway.
6 It will eventually take over completely
Carried to an extreme, the console’s rapid evolution might produce something like Toyota‘s FV2 concept vehicle, which melds driver and automobile into a cyborg-like unit. According to a company statement, an augmented reality display on the windshield promises to keep car and driver in synch via “a human-like interface that connects both physically and emotionally with its driver; voice and image recognition are used to determine the driver’s mood, and in response the body colour and exterior display can be changed at will.” Since the beginning, cars have been seen as a form of self-expression, but never have they been quite so expressive.
It seems inevitable, though, that over time the need for a driver’s input will diminish to nonexistence. “The autonomous automobile is coming,” says Welburn. “There are still many challenges, but many of the components are in our cars already.”
In recent months, automakers from Tesla and BMW to Nissan and Toyota have gone on the record, promising driverless cars before the decade is through, and Google’s fleet of driverless cars have collectively logged hundreds of thousands of hours without a single accident. The California Department of Motor Vehicles is at work on a set of rules that will apply to driverless cars, and has promised that by the end of the year, regulations will be in place to make driverless cars street legal – essentially giving regulated on-board computers a license to drive.