05 Aug 2015

As in every industry—and every facet of our lives—technology is making serious waves in the automotive sphere, for better and for worse. Here we examine how vehicles are being transformed by tech, looking at upcoming additions and upgrades, successes and failures, the user experience, and what a future involving autonomous cars might actually look like.

Start your engines…

Tech to Expect

When it comes to automobile technology, we’ve come a long way, baby. And while we haven’t yet reached a point in which everyone is being driven around in autonomous vehicles (yet—more on that below), there’s more innovative tech on the horizon that’s poised to revolutionize many aspects of the driving experience.

Here are just a few additions to vehicles you could see in the near-ish future…

Tires that never go flat: South Korea’s Hankook Tire has developed airless tires that have been tested for stability, durability, hardness, speed and more at speeds up to 80 mph

Smart headlights: We can thank Ford for the creation of smart headlights, which could work with GPS and learn your routes, and then automatically adjust routes when necessary. The problem? Legislation from 1968 means that they’re technically illegal in the US. Talk about a roadblock.

Tech to monitor driver fatigue: An Australian company called Seeing Machines has combined infrared lights and built-in cameras to create a system that monitors the driver’s head position and tracks their eyes, which in testing resulted in a 70 percent decrease in driver fatigue and distraction. Meanwhile, researchers in the EU are creating a car seat and seat belts that measure heart and breathing rates through embedded sensors to monitor fatigue.

Cars that stop speeding: Ford has come up with a car that reads speed-limit signs and automatically slows down.

Drunk-driving prevention: Not just for those with a DUI! Tech is being worked on that could prevent cars from starting if the driver is intoxicated, and it’s predicted to be car-ready in five to eight years.

Click here to find more innovation-related insights in our infographic!

User Experience and the Fancy vs. Functional Debate

While the progression of tech and innovations like those above are exciting, what needs to be first and foremost in designers’ and manufacturers’ minds is the user experience.

In an age where everything we do revolves around technology and nearly every brand in nearly every industry is striving to implement the latest and greatest, it can be tempting to go overboard when tricking things out with tech. However, it’s important to remember that just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should. The most intricate, involved technology isn’t always the best call.

(After all, this isn’t Pimp My Ride, and automobile manufacturers shouldn’t try to be Xzibit. Because we don’t all need a snow cone machine in the trunk…even though it’s awesome.)

One excellent illustration of this concept can be found in The Best Interface is No Interface. In this book, author Golden Krishna refers to our love affair with smartphones and how many automobile manufacturers promoted how they developed apps with the ability to unlock the car door. However, while that sounds like a cool concept (and is, undoubtedly, an impressive feat), it turns out to be more of a hassle than it’s actually worth. Krishna describes the 13 steps—13!—involved in the unlocking process, from pulling out the phone to actually opening the door. And while, granted, it’s a bit of hyperbole, he makes an excellent point: That’s 11 steps more than necessary. As Krishna puts it:

If we eliminate the graphical user interface, we’re left with only two steps:

1. A driver approaches her car

2. She opens her car door

He then proceeds to refer to a solution that was implemented over a decade before by Siemens and implemented first by Mercedes-Benz:

When you grab the car door handle (a logical part of opening a car door), the car sends out a low-frequency radio signal to see if your keys are in close proximity — say, in your pocket or in your purse — and if they are, the doors unlock instantaneously, without any additional work.

The moral of the story is that the goal of technology is to make life easier for the user, and often the most complex answer is not the correct one.

(Read more excerpts from the book here.)

The Path to Total Autonomy: Google’s Driverless Cars and Other Endeavors

In terms of the progression of technology and the automobile, the ultimate dream (besides the flying cars we’ve been dreaming of since The Jetsons) is currently to live in a world in which autonomous cars chauffeur us around. And, more and more, this dream is getting closer to becoming a bit of a reality.

Google’s self-driving cars hit the road in Austin in early July and—as a company based in Austin and concerned for the wellbeing of its driving, biking and motorcycle-riding employees—we were very intrigued about the track record of these vehicles and, realistically, whether they could successfully operate as well as the American driver.

(Depressing statistic: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 33,561 people were killed by car crashes in the US in 2012, which was noted by The Atlantic in January to be the most recent statistic available. In other words, we aren’t setting the bar very high.)

As it turns out, Google’s record isn’t too bad. Their self-driving cars have been on the road since 2009, and in June the vehicles were reported to have collectively clocked 1.8 million miles. In spring of 2014, they had traveled 700,000 miles without an accident, and in Google’s Self-Driving Car Project Monthly Report for May of 2015, they had totaled only 12 accidents—all of which were minor, half of which occurred when the vehicle was in autonomous mode, and none of which, according to Google, were the fault of their vehicle.

However, it’s not just Google throwing their hat in the driverless-car ring. Actual automobile manufacturers are also striving to create autonomous vehicles. Business Insider reports that “companies like Mercedes, BMW, and Tesla have already released, or are soon to release, self-driving features that give the car some ability to drive itself.” The outlet also estimates that 10 million cars with self-driving features will be on the road by 2020.

This is actually a development that most Americans claim to be okay with. In one survey, 60 percent of US adults surveyed claimed that they would trust driverless cars, while 32 percent of US adults have claimed they wouldn’t continue to drive once an autonomous car was available.

And the ramifications of the self-driving car? Not only would the average American commuter have the ability to relax and perhaps even get work done during the 38 hours they spend stuck in traffic each year, but the McKinsey Report estimates that self-driving cars will result in $180 billion savings on repair and health care bills in the US.

Saving time, saving money, and maybe even saving lives lost to car accidents. It almost seems too good to be true. And it might be. All automobile manufacturers can do is innovate (and test drive, test drive, test drive!), and…well…all we can do is wait.

The Road Ahead

There’s a quote that’s attributed (perhaps incorrectly) to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

In other words, odds are good that the user doesn’t have a good grasp on what’s possible; they don’t know what’s best for them. It’s up to automobile manufacturers, the experts, to envision that. To forge ahead, to think creatively. To pioneer new technologies, push limits, and see what’s really possible—all with the same ultimate end goal: to create a better user experience for the driver. Whoever does that first, and best, is destined for success.

Trust us: We wouldn’t, um, steer you wrong.