Several companies I work with are helping develop the car cockpit of the future. And it is clear; these cabins are going to evolve a lot over the next decade. Much of this evolution will have to do with the changing nature of the driver—moving from always engaged to occasionally engaged to never engaged as we evolve automobiles into autonomous vehicles. Several new problems will pop up, making it increasingly risky to buy a pre-autonomous driving car because you may not be able to sell it once autonomous driving hits critical mass.
What got me thinking about this was a presentation from Qualcomm about their car cabin of the future. This update was also on their comprehensive program to help evolve cars to autonomous vehicles coming later in the decade. The nice thing about Qualcomm’s approach is they massively license, which means—much like they do with smartphones—they’ll be in a far better position to drive this transition and benefit from it than those that don’t.
Car Cabin Of The Future
You better like displays because we will be up to our armpits in them for future cars. Virtually every company working on the future cabin is talking multiple displays, more extensive displays, and even talking about turning the windows into displays.
Had you asked me last year, I would have said that screen-based virtual buttons would replace physical buttons. However, the success of the Ford Mach-e and its physical buttons suggest that won’t be the case for many cars.
In-car sensors will advance beyond what we have today to monitor alertness initially. Still, they will likely evolve into monitoring for health and health events like stroke or heart attacks that can disable or kill the driver. Conversational AI (artificial intelligence) is improving to the degree that it should allow us to have conversations with our car to kill time before the end of the decade. If you want to get a sense of how similar technology works today, this link takes you to a video demonstrating Amazon Echo’s conversation mode. I’ve used it myself, and it is far better than I thought it would be.
Other improvements will include better sound management that can use active noise cancellation with sound generation to either create a better sound experience for entertainment in the car or change the audio personality of the automobile to fit your needs. For instance, you could give your car a turbine engine sound or a steam train engine sound and broadcast that sound externally for effect. Given how quiet electric cars are and how often folks looking at their phones are walking in front of them accidentally, this should quickly go from an option to a requirement.
Over time the cabin will evolve away from the driving-focused designs popular now to more of a rolling living room design more appropriate if it is mostly driving itself. It will get a ton better for in-car sleeping.
That’s all wonderful, but I’m getting more concerned that we aren’t addressing the problems with the coming conversion to autonomous electric vehicles adequately.
Coming Vehicle Transition Problems
As we convert or eliminate gas stations over the next decade, ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars are likely to become increasingly hard to sell as well. This issue is on top of the typical problems converting a gas station to anything else, thanks to the buried and toxic gas retention tanks. And today’s electrics may not be much better because most don’t handle the more advanced charging solutions today, let alone the higher-powered versions of tomorrow. For instance, my 2019 electric Jaguar I-Pace will only handle a 100 KW direct charger, but new chargers will provide up to 4.5 times that charging level. Over the next five years, battery technology is expected to double in capacity rendering existing cars potentially obsolete. We even have robotic chargers coming, which, to work, may require a level of charging port standardization (like an automatic charger door opening and closing) and placement we don’t have yet.
These issues are on top of Elon Musk’s damage to autonomous car demand. By convincing people his current technology can be used for hands-free driving when it isn’t close to ready, resulting in many avoidable deaths. Even Consumer Reports, which highlights safety problems with the technology on an ongoing basis, has asked him to rename the feature until it works like an Autopilot, and he has refused. Currently, Musk is arguably doing more damage to future autonomous car demand than anyone else. To me, and apparently others, his behavior crosses over into actionable negligence.
Wrapping Up: Wonderful and troubling times ahead
We tend to get overly excited about new technology and ignore many of the critical and painful problems needed to make it successful. On the positive side, the cars coming by 2030 should be far cleaner, far safer, and far more reliable than today’s cars. But these massive differences come with problems because they will require massive changes. These changes will include how we fuel them, the amount of electrical power we generate, and how liability is assigned in an accident (which is currently making it unlikely we’ll ever have a Level 5 car or that city services will talk to cars).
A fantastic future is coming in automotive, but we are nowhere near ready for it. That could pose a problem for the roll out of new car technology, and what we do with the massive number of cars likely to become rapidly obsolete. In short, we should be doing a ton more modeling of this coming future to be sure the buyers and the ecosystems surrounding these fantastic new cars are both ready and able to make this massive pivot.
Back to Qualcomm, thanks to their experience with smartphones and related regulation, they may be the best positioned to help guide their clients into a safer, more complete, and more financially successful autonomous car future.