Episode 0027 - Baby, Who Can Drive Your Car?

A lot has happened since the iconic show 'Should Cars Get Smarter?', so it is time to once again have a look at In Vehicle Infotainment. Are you OK with some megacorporation driving your car?

Podcast: Download OGG (35.5 MB) | Download mp3 (58.9 MB) | Duration: 01:02:47

"Android has a problem in that a lot of car manufacturers are not willing to give up the control of the display to Google or Apple ... which is something that AGL and Tizen IVI are better designed to support."
-- Dan Cauchy, the Linux Foundation
One Cool Thing
A car interface on a mobile phone
"Android Torque: Volvo RS40" Original (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Lukas Kästner.

Continuing on their journeys through time and space, our hosts end up on the surface of Mars in this episode. Partially thanks to Robin's bad driving skills, but mostly because Kenneth went for the cheap alternative when buying a new infotainment system for the All In IT Radio Space Craft. And so, that becomes the main topic for this discussion. As an update to episode 0007, ”Should Cars Get Smarter?”, our hosts hit F5 and take a refreshed look at the current state of technology in cars. How smart are the infotainment systems of today? How safe are they? What interesting concepts are out there? And when can we expect self-driving cars?

Henrik tells us about his experience with Volvo's Sensus Connect and Renault's R-Link, two basic infotainment systems that doesn't offer any surprises. R-Link, being a bit less robust than Sensus, is according to Henrik a perfect example of why simply placing a touch screen on the dashboard isn't the best idea. With a poorly designed user experience, where you easily get lost in navigating the menu, combined with using the unit while driving, is not only a hassle but also dangerous. Many systems, like Sensus and R-Link, also lets you control it via buttons on the steering wheel or even voice commands, but even these systems often feel unintuitive and half-finished.

While discussing how such an integral part of a fairly expensive product can be so bad, Henrik and Robin reminds us that the importance of branding, that we are used to see on Android for example, are even more important when it comes to cars. Often far more important than a well-designed and intuitive infotainment system.

Kenneth mentions Linux Foundation Automotive Grade Linux, an ”open source project developing a common, Linux-based software stack for the connected car”, who also design the user interface with HTML5 and JavaScript.

Henrik also found an interesting concept called "A New Car UI" by Matthaeus Krenn who address the issue with an infotainment system being based on visual input, which devices like smartphones are. On a traditional dashboard, the tactile response a driver gets from the buttons and dials guides him, without taking his eyes off the road. The compromise used in ”this concept” [ersätt med namn?] is a touch interface where the number of fingers you use and their relative position activates different features. Two fingers close together might access the speaker volume, where you adjust by sliding up and down. Three fingers far apart might let you adjust the temperature by rotating your hand. Kenneth and Robin agree that this sounds like an interesting idea, but poses the question of how to make such a system self-explanatory and accessible without reading a manual before using it.

What it all comes down to is that a basic infotainment system must be easy to learn and safe to use while driving. Robin believes that a good voice controlled system must be the best solution, if you actually get it to work flawless.

Yet another different take on the problem, or perhaps a mix of several solutions, is what BMW use in some of their cars. Similar to the idea with buttons on the steering wheel they have a small control unit, almost like a joystick, in the center of the car, close to the gear shifter. This joystick controls the infotainment system and makes it easy to scroll, select options, go in and out of menus and using the different features, almost the same way a computer mouse works. Henrik briefly tried this solution, and believes this is more or less as good as it gets right now. You get the advantages of physical buttons, wheels and dials, and combined with a voice system this works really well. Another benefit is that you can quickly develop muscle memory, where features and menus you often access gets easy to access, even without giving the screen a glance.

Henrik also briefly mention an infotainment system that never was fully developed an used in a car, Saab IQon. It was based on Android, and after the bankrupcy of Saab in 2011 it continued development under the name Swedspot.

So what about the future of self-driving cars? Robin tells us that Volvo is currently having test vehicles on the roads of Gothenburg, which can follow the traffic flow, keep the speed limit and stay in the right lane as well as switch lanes automatically. He also tells us about a similar system developed in Germany with a lot more safety features and automatic maneuvers, but for a much heftier price tag. Focusing on reducing the number of accidents during daily commute, Volvo's system will be a bit more basic and wont be able to handle all situations on its own, but are aiming to be on the road as soon as 2017.

So how will the law tackle self-driving cars? If you read a book or take a nap while driving to work, are you responsible in case of an accident? Looking at the near future of self-driving cars, it doesn't seem like we will be able to completely let the robots do all the work. Like a lot of the safety systems already included in cars on the road today, like adaptive speed control and blind spot detection, the aim is to make the driving easier. Same goes for most of the self-driving features currently being developed. But when cars actually can take you from point A to point B without any input from the driver, how will the laws work? Henrik recalls an interview with engineers from Volvo who said that while the discussion is ongoing and nothing is set in stone, if you are using the product, a self-driving car, as intended, it can hardly be your fault if something happens. Kenneth reminds us that in most scenarios self-driving cars are safer than humans anyway, reacting faster and not taking any rash or unexpected decisions.

Kenneth, Robin and Henrik all agree that they look forward to this and would like to have a self-driving car. Henrik predicts that when Google's self-driving car eventually hits the market it will be free to get, but you will pay by watching ads on the windscreen.

Links mentioned in todays show
Let us wrap this up!

Send your feedback to the group !aiitr at Identi.ca or mark it with hashtag #aiitr at Twitter, you find me at both Identi.ca and Twitter as @AlltInomIT. Henrik you find at @Warpfuz and Robin at @RobinHarming.

Theme music today by Bane Djakovic.
Music is released under Creative Commons BY 3.0.

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