Future car technology: What to expect

Clear communication with your car is vital. We don’t simply mean reading displays or pressing buttons here, either. Communication means how you interact with your car, the inputs you have to make to get a response, and the way it makes you feel as a result.

We all receive communication from our cars – the steering goes light when the tyres run out of grip, or the engine judders and jerks when we’re asking a little too much of it in a gear too low.

There are also those more obvious, day-to-day methods – turning a knob or pressing a button to change volume or radio station, as well as the more sophisticated interfaces that rely upon rotary controls or even voice recognition for tasks such as destination input for the sat-nav or calling via Bluetooth connectivity.

All are apparent nuances of motoring, but without them we’d be hard pushed to accurately, efficiently – and importantly – safely drive a car.

Future such communications are likely to be rather different to today. New methods of communicating with your car – as well as developing approaches for your car to ‘talk’ back to you – are emerging that are set to change the face of how we drive and interact with out vehicles forever.

Here, we investigate some of the cutting-edge car communications systems that could be coming soon.

Gesture control

Development of gesture control over certain aspects of a vehicle’s systems is already underway.

The prototype technology incorporates infrared light sensors located around the cabin (mounted on the dashboard, for example) to detect pre-determined movements made by the driver.

These gestures can include a tilt of the head or a wink, and correspond to a list of commands already set up to control the stereo, sat-nav and Bluetooth systems. The technology can also be used to control features relevant to the majority of cars on UK roads, including heating and ventilation controls.

The system – being pioneered by American technology company Harman, best known for its stereo setups – is being tested on a Ford Ka prototype.

The infrared sensors can recognise a range of hand gestures, such as:

  • putting an imaginary phone to your ear to activate the Bluetooth call function
  • tilting your head to the left or right to increase or decrease the stereo’s volume respectively
  • raising or lowering your palm in front of the centre console to adjust the ventilation system

More conventional methods of adjusting parameters inside the car’s cabin have also been integrated into the prototype, including tapping the left or right-hand side of the steering wheel to skip backwards or forwards a track on the CD player.

The technology in the prototype is even advanced enough to pick up expressions and fine detail in a driver’s face to alter settings, such as wink to turn the stereo on or off.

It’s clever stuff, and Harman is hoping it will improve safety, removing the temptation and necessity to avert your attention from the road and the task in hand when adjusting anything inside the car.

This will certainly improve concentration and awareness at the wheel if it’s used in the right way.

However, just as other current systems are so frequently misused and often abused, there’s potential for more complex actions (including removing your hands from the wheel) to undergo teething problems in terms of implementation that may frustrate and distract drivers.

Haptic feedback

Haptic feedback is already alive and performing faultlessly in areas of day-to-day life. If you have a mobile phone, the chances are you’ll get haptic feedback from it in the form of a vibration when the device rings or notifies you of a new text message or email.

It’s also in place in the automotive world. If your car has a lane keep assist function, you’ll probably have felt a high-frequency vibration through either the steering wheel or the seat base, highlighting you could be straying outside the white lines.

The latest crop of alternative propulsion vehicles are debuting new forms of haptic feedback, too.

Cars such as the Chevrolet Volt give you a little buzz after your press a button on the dash, while touch screen interfaces for sat-navs and infotainment systems are increasingly turning towards haptic feedback to confirm the acceptance of a command.

And it’s this point of communicating with your car – or rather your car communicating with you – that will help to improve safety behind the wheel.

As car’s become more complex, drivers want less and less to have to take their eyes off the road to determine whether a command has been accepted – often in the form of a visual message.

A short burst of haptic feedback means the driver needn’t have to look down to find out if their actions have been correctly inputted into a device.

Voice control

Voice control isn’t the newest form of technology on the automotive block – it’s been around in large executive saloon cars for over a decade. But now it’s filtering down to more accessible machinery, such as city cars and superminis, the modern crop of systems are becoming ever more sophisticated.

No longer is it a frustrating battle with the computer to find the correct name in your phonebook. They’re more accurate and more intuitive, and have been adapted to bring control of satellite navigation, Bluetooth telephony and audio systems under their remit.

From a button mounted on the steering wheel to initiate the input of information – or potentially a voice activated ‘wake-up’ command in the future – this technology means a driver will potentially never have to remove his or her hands from the wheel and should allow them to keep their gaze fixed on the road ahead.

But there’s a grey issue surrounding safety. If speaking on a mobile phone while at the wheel is band on the grounds of your brain focusing elsewhere and not solely on the task of driving, could the same can be said for voice controlled devices?

There’s potential for motorists to think about what they are trying to do with the car’s auxiliary features, rather than processing and acting on information they’re seeing as a result of not having to take their eyes of the road.

There are plans afoot to try and ban the use of mobile phones even with hands-free or Bluetooth kits while driving, so whether or not future legislation will allow the proposed systems to be implemented in the modern car remains to be seen…

Thought control

It sounds far fetched, and not even the Jetsons had thought controlled vehicles, but controlling a car by brainwaves – and not just its onboard systems – is not far away. In fact, prototype thought-controlled vehicles are already undergoing testing.

German researchers have developed a car you can drive with your mind. Called BrainDriver, the technology uses off-the-shelf parts, including something called an electroencephalography system designed for use on home gaming consoles.

Essentially, this means it can track brainwaves and interpret them as control inputs for a car.

Sixteen sensors measure electromagnetic signals from the brain and send them to a computer, this is then translated into commands – turn left, right, stop, go, etc. – for the car’s drive-by-wire autonomous control systems to control the accelerator, brakes and steering.

It’s currently being tested on a Volkswagen Passat with some success, but it has been found that the technology doesn’t necessarily work on everyone.

According to Raul Rojas, a professor working on the artificial intelligence as part of the BrainDriver project, “there is something people in the brain-computer interface community call ‘BCI literacy’.

“That is, that you can really use a BCI and control a computer. For unknown reasons a big chunk of the population is BCI-illiterate.”

So this technology might be limited to future customers, but even if we as drivers can’t use it, it is fuelling the development of the next step on again: the fully autonomous car.

Keep concentrating

Despite advances in in-car equipment and communicating with your car, we all need to stay vigilant behind the wheel. The main task we should be concentrating on when driving is driving itself.

While all these new devices are meant to make us safer behind the wheel and provide fewer distractions, until we learn how to use them properly to benefit us – extracting the maximum from the technology – we’re going to encounter some teething problems along the way.

Ultimately, the relentless pace of development will make sure we’re safer and more secure on the roads. But until that point, we have to remember it is we who are in control of the vehicle, and interacting with even the smallest ancillary system can take our eye off the ball.