Mobility innovation is moving at a rapid pace, with experts predicting autonomous vehicles (AVs) joining our roads sometime between tomorrow and 2040. Realistically, the deployment of full self-driving vehicles will probably be piecemeal and occur over the next several years, and excitement is peaking.
Those who struggle to separate hype from reality would welcome the dose of realism presented by experts during the SAA/P3 Accelerating Mobility Solutions event in April. At its North American Mobility Innovation Center in Southfield, Michigan, P3 North America, the global consulting, testing, and engineering firm for the aerospace, telecom, and automotive sectors, hosted members of the Society of Automotive Analysts and other stakeholders to share thoughts and research on technology trends, effective cost analysis methods, and user experience in the mobility sector.
They also rolled out some interesting autonomous technology, including live demonstrations and in-seat looks at a few vehicles at various levels of autonomy.
Common themes for the event were safety and end-user acceptance of AVs, with frequent comparisons to what is required, and expected, in the aviation industry. Recent high profile accidents involving self-driving cars may slow the aggressive pace toward full autonomy, and help give researchers additional context for development and testing. Timeline adjustments may be appropriate as a result.
“We are learning that customer expectations aren’t aligned yet. We know that the user guide says clearly to keep your hands on the steering wheel, but what we are finding is that most people don’t read the user guide. They say ‘let’s just go figure it out, and somehow we will get there,’” says Colin Goldsmith, partner with P3.
Teslas, Cadillacs equipped with Super Cruise, and other vehicles with autonomous features still require driver attention to varying degrees.
At a high level, vehicle-to-driver communication is inconsistent and today’s vehicles employ proprietary user experiences, including unique methods to provoke desired actions, a variety of instrument panel colors, and prominent display of speedometers and odometers.
In a traditional vehicle, safety elements and driver warnings are important, yet they are the smallest on the screen.
Alternatively, AVs have the potential to provide completely new user experiences to help drivers, who are still present and still in some level of control, focus on the most important thing at any given time, highlighting a completely new approach to vehicle use.
“Historically, the driver influenced how the car performed. Now the driver must adapt to the way the vehicle operates. The driver must react to the car. In accidents that have happened, there were warnings but the driver didn’t take control,” says Goldsmith.
Achieving perfection…and infrastructure
Still, from a technology standpoint, the U.S. and Europe are moving toward maturity. “We have the technology to make a car fully autonomous today, but we need perfection, just like in the aviation industry,” says Goldsmith.
A key challenge for this fast-paced industry is tortoise-slow government regulation. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, for example, has potential to expand quickly, with new tech edging out old tech before regulation is even in place.
“We have 5G that could even replace V2V [dedicated short range communication], so waiting for regulation is not always the best answer,” says Goldsmith, who adds that China’s faster regulatory process may boost that country’s on-road progress for AVs.
Ultimately, AVs, with their potential to remove human error from the driving process, will save lives and offer ultimate flexibility in how we work through our days. Even on a relatively small-scale rollout, AVs have the potential to help cities like Detroit leapfrog public transportation challenges, and offer individuals more productive time in their daily lives.
What’s trending more slowly than vehicle technology is infrastructure that will enable that technology, as well as present challenges. Highways provide a stable environment for first AV experiences, but cities are more nuanced and will require more rigorous testing.
As infrastructure expands, so does the concept of seamless integration between home, vehicle, and work. “How do we take the car and integrate it into our home experience? How will we move toward the idea of our vehicle being not so separate from home? After all, I want my vehicle to have all the same connectivity I had in my house,” says Goldsmith.
Real future development, says Goldsmith, requires wiping the expectation slate clean and building from scratch with a whole new mindset, a very real challenge for development. “Minimize the hardware, and make the software smarter, with a core software program that is modular across the board,” he says.
As more partnerships develop between different industries, such as consumer electronics, telecom, and automotive, a fuller picture will emerge, and cultural change will drive growth. As OEMs reach beyond the individual ownership model toward diverse mobility solutions, they are seeking new business models as the requirements and expectations of consumers continue to evolve.
What customers want
To get consumer perspective and gauge awareness on AVs, P3 surveyed customers at the North American International Auto Show this year. When asked what activities they’d like to engage in while traveling that they can’t currently, customers said read, sleep, and engage in media. More surprising is what they didn’t say: texting or using social media.
“That is because we are already doing this in our cars now. Distraction is at an all-time high,” says Erik Alvarado, who leads P3’s user experience evaluation.
When asked their hesitations about AVs, consumers show concern with safety, trust, and reliability, which may mean it will take some time before consumers experience an airline-like experience with AVs, where they enter the vehicle, input their destination, and remain uninvolved as they are transported to their destination.
Interestingly, consumers rank their top current vehicle frustrations as usability, accessibility, and intuitiveness in the user experience design. “There is a lot of difference between brands of infotainment, different types of warnings, and alert colors are consistent across the industry,” says Alvarado. “Many simple say ‘my phone does it better,’ which is a huge topic, and changes the direction developers can go in an AV world.”
How the future might look
Alvarado shared several future AV scenarios, as a sneak peak into how vehicle configurations would look, depending upon which entity dominates. For example, if automobile OEMs dominate, the vehicle could look like a mobile living room, highly flexible for short or long trips, with integrated displays and increased connectivity for email, media consumption, and voice calls.
A ride-sharing scenario, an option with significant potential, would require a durable vehicle, robust enough for a 24-hour continuous driving cycle, with entertainment and media limited to what the individual brings into the vehicle. Fleets would make available separate vehicles for small groups and commuters, for larger group travel to destinations further afield, and for public transportation.
For the Apples and Googles of mobility, a tech giant scenario would accommodate a large existing user base, and serve as a mobile showroom for their products. A smartphone would serve as a key to use the transportation solution, and users would maintain a balance for payment, perhaps accumulating points, and using credits or a subscription. Geotagging may offer featured product advertisements to users.
A final complete disruption scenario is built on startup innovation, with either complete mobility, or no mobility at all. In the former, people live in a continuously moving home on wheels. In the latter, individuals need never venture away from home base, as goods and services come to them, either by drone or autonomous delivery, or through holograms and augmented reality.
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