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Sunday, May 28, 2023
May 28, 2023

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Casey Williams: Google, AI and augmented reality will transform our driving experience


Before automobiles, a “dashboard” was a wooden panel on carriages that kept horse dung from becoming one’s evening attire. As carriages became horseless, the dashboard separated engine from occupants and provided a convenient place to hang volt meters, speedometers, radios, climate controls and, eventually, touchscreens.

Buick’s 1986 Riviera transformed dashboards by using a monochrome CRT touchscreen for adjusting the climate, audio and computer. GM shared the system with the two-seat Reatta and installed a colorized version with integrated cell phone on the Oldsmobile Toronado. In the same era, GM debuted digital gauges, head-up displays (HUDs) and reconfigurable instrument clusters. We were seeing a glimpse of the sort of driver controls that are now becoming common.

BMW beyond iDrive

When I first drove the 2002 BMW 7-Series, it took 30 minutes to learn how to adjust audio, climate and navigation with the new iDrive joywheel infotainment system. The infernal device eventually became simpler, but it still buries basic functions menus deep. Perhaps BMW heard complaints, as the automaker showed an entirely new concept during January’s CES tech convention in Las Vegas.

“With BMW i Vision Dee, we are showing how the car can be seamlessly integrated into your digital life and become a trusty companion,” said Adrian van Hooydonk, head of BMW Design. “Implemented the right way, technology will create worthwhile experiences, make you a better driver and simply bring humans and machines closer together.”

Dee stands for digital emotional experience, and it represents a focus on the bond between humans and automobiles by integrating the owner’s digital world to their travels. It starts with a head-up display that extends across the full width of the windshield and is controlled by steering wheel touchpoints that activate when pressed for a “hands on the wheel, eyes on the road” approach to driving.

Unlike iDrive, which now includes gesture-recognition audio controls, drivers can use hidden sensors on the dash to advance sophistication from analog to driving-related information, communications systems, augmented reality, and even virtual worlds. Drivers decide how much digital content they want to see on the HUD.

Look for this technology in BMW vehicles from 2025 onward.

Chrysler synthesizes driving

Chrysler Group’s UConnect system has been one of my favorite infotainment systems, employing simple icons for audio, navigation, phone and apps with redundant knobs and buttons plus voice commands for key functions. But now, Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent, proposes a new approach with the Synthesis system shown during CES.

“The Chrysler Synthesis represents the future of Chrysler brand design, technology and customer experience by introducing customer-centric design and intuitive, seamlessly connected technology for real life,” said Chris Feuell, Chrysler brand CEO. “Chrysler is focused on delivering Harmony In Motion for every aspect of the customer experience with the product, technology, purchase and ownership experiences, resulting in harmony with the planet, our products, services and customer experiences.”

The heart of the system is 37.2 inches of infotainment split between two screens. Keeping ergonomic simplicity, designers aimed for “one glance, one click” execution, and the system includes a personal assistant to map your day, recommend parking, find EV chargers and facilitate online purchases. Using artificial intelligence, Synthesis welcomes passengers, sets moods (music and lights), and shows what’s relevant in the moment. It allows drivers to log into videoconferencing, too (in autonomous mode).

Chrysler will install Synthesis in a car inspired by the 2021 Airflow Concept circa 2025.

Mercedes-Benz Googles all

Back when GM was exploring a 1980s version of glass cockpits, Mercedes-Benz was renowned for its near-perfect analog gauges and central control console. These were serious machines engineered for serious speeds with few distractions for drivers. Since then, Mercedes has gone fully digital and showed the all-new Google-powered E-Class.

“Google has been a leader in maps and navigation for many years,” said Ola Kallenius, CEO of Mercedes-Benz. “With our strategic partnership, we are excited to create unique services and to elevate the level of convenience for our customers. It will be deeply integrated within our signature Mercedes-Benz user interface and fully connected to relevant vehicle functions like the state-of-charge.”

The Googlified architecture connects via 5G and employs the latest version of Mercedes’ full-width three-zone Hyperscreen that allows passengers to watch streaming video and access apps like TikTok and Angry Birds. In a nod to K.I.T.T. from the 1980s hit show “Knight Rider,” cameras on the dash facilitate Webex and Zoom calls (when parked, of course).

Owners can also create custom routines for their desired interior configuration. For example, one could say, “Switch on the seat ventilation and set ambient lighting to blue if the interior temperature is above 70 degrees.” Screen icons more closely mirror smartphone tiles. Drivers can further choose between Classic and Sporty display styles.

The 2024 Mercedes-Benz E-Class begins sales later this year.

Audi augments reality

As General Motors ushered in an age of touchscreens and HUDs, Audi’s recent Activesphere Concept opens an era of minimalist interiors for autonomous driving made possible by augmented reality. As steering wheels and pedals retract, dashboards in 2030 may complete the journey from horse screens to no screens.

“We are experiencing a paradigm shift, especially in the interior of our future Audi models,” said Oliver Hoffmann, Member of the Audi Board of Management for Technical Development. “The interior becomes a place where the passengers feel at home and can connect to the outside world at the same time. The most important technical innovation in the Audi Activesphere is our adaptation of augmented reality for mobility.”

Stylists at the Audi Design Studio in Malibu imagine a “mixed reality” environment accessed through augmented reality headsets. Each passenger configures their own environment and views, adjusts controls seemingly hanging in air, and views 3D topography projected onto the landscape ahead. As users focus on a zone of information, more detail automatically comes forth. Forget joywheels; this system anticipates what you need before you need it.

In other words, the dashboard’s come a long way over the last four decades.

In a 1986 review of the Buick touchscreen, automotive journalist Brock Yates said, “There, mounted dead center, like a window on the future, is the magical, touch sensitive CRT screen, AKA Graphic Control Center — the interface of an all-seeing, all-knowing computer that is meant to transform a trip to the 7-Eleven into a space odyssey.”

He could barely imagine.

Casey Williams is an Indianapolis-based automotive journalist and a long-time contributor to the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at AutoCasey@aol.com and on YouTube @AutoCasey.)