Augmented reality technology has power to make people better drivers
After spending years developing ways to suck content out of our smartphones and into cars’ centre stack, the big issue now facing car makers is how to keep our hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Driver distraction has become a serious concern. So can augmented reality give people access to more information while driving without them turning into zombies behind the wheel?
The real problem is the number of screens in cars: it’s not just the one on the mobile phone that’s a distraction. It’s pretty normal for people to browse their music collection, talk hands-free and adjust their sat-nav: it’s all on display and at their fingertips. At the very least we need a filter for information.
Head-up displays could be part of the solution. They basically project information onto the windscreen in your line of sight. No need to glance away from the road to confirm your speed when you approach a camera, for example. The numbers you need are right there.
The technology is starting to break into the mass market and “augmented reality” systems are also on the way. Rather than giving you more information while driving, the focus is on giving you better quality information, at the right time.
What’s available now
Current systems let you view just a few key pieces of information like speed and simple navigation cues. The virtual image appears to float around 2.5 metres in front of the dashboard so drivers need to make only small focus adjustments between far and near.
To make the system more affordable for Golf-class cars and smaller, some models will use “combiner” displays instead of projecting the image onto the specially shaped windscreen you normally need. Expect to see a lot more of these units in the coming years.
How augmented reality will change driving
The killer application, however, is augmented reality. The system that I got to test-drive with Continental is pencilled in for production in 2017. Chances are that it will appear first in a big BMW, Mercedes or Audi, but premium brands will want to offer it across their entire range. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll appreciate how inconvenient a lot of display screens in cars really are.
Augmented reality may be less spectacular than you expect. I imagined a lot of cool whirling graphics and warnings, but soon learned why that wouldn’t work. The aim isn’t to turn driving into some kind of video game, it’s just to point out hazards and provide a few useful prompts right in your line of sight.
Surprisingly, the projection area is only about the size of an A4 sheet of paper. That’s bigger than it sounds, however. From the driver’s seat the projections can appear up to 1.3m wide and up to 18 metres away.
The augmentations focus on the most frequently used driver assistance systems: navigation, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings. Drift too close to the white line and a string of red cats eyes are superimposed onto the driver’s view.
Information becomes part of the drive
Eelco Spoelder, the head of Continental’s Head-Up Display business, said: “The challenge with safety systems is to warn of imminent danger as effectively as possible – and in a way that drivers accept. Because the augmentation is right in their field of vision they intuitively understand the connection between the augmentation and their surroundings. The information becomes part of the traffic.”
With other warnings, such as beeps, bells or buzzing steering wheels or seats, it can take a second to work out what the car is trying to tell you. In Continental’s demonstrator vehicle, the visual lane departure warning was backed up with a powerful buzz from the seat. I kept thinking I’d got a text message.
Using augmented reality with adaptive cruise control also shows promise. Drivers often find themselves wondering if the cruise control is really on and what it’s doing when the car changes lane. On Conti’s prototype, once the radar spots the car in front it is highlighted with a small crescent-shaped “shadow”. Change lanes and you can it acquire its new target. Accelerate or brake and the crescent changes colour to let you know that you’re back in full control. It will make a lot of people more comfortable with using cruise control.
Navigation is what will sell the technology on test-drives, however. Most people have experienced situations in which the instructions don’t make sense. Having your own signposts beamed onto the road ahead is a lot easier than listening to instructions, checking the screen and trying to match them to what you can see.
The system creates ‘fishbone’ arrows that lead the way just like ordinary road markings, letting the driver know which way to go, which lane to move to, and then confirming they are on track.
Good ergonomics are a basic safety feature. With augmented reality, the benefit is immediately obvious. Your eyes are on the road, not the sat-nav screen, when it matters most – at junctions, turns, and lane changes.
In the long run, more safety functions will no doubt benefit from augmented reality: traffic sign recognition and front collision warning are the most likely next steps. It may take some time for the technology to reach affordable city cars, but some brands are already considering head-up displays for their smaller models.
What do you think? Clearly it can’t solve driver distraction completely. This won’t stop anybody from using their phones while driving, but can the right kind of warnings and information help to make most of us better, more alert drivers?