Autonomous vehicles will introduce waves of new innovations that stand to reshape the world’s cities, as well as the lives of people who live and work in them. The ways in which cars connect and communicate will be a central piece of their ecosystem, and the choices made by designers now will send ripples through lives for decades to come.
Hugo Wagner is an analyst at Orange Silicon Valley who is actively engaged with developments in aerospace, satellites, and terrestrial communications that intersect with the future of connected vehicles on the ground. As self-driving cars emerge from testing and find their way to market, their appearance and behavior will play crucial roles in how they integrate with fleets, roads, and society. Wagner sat down with the Orange Silicon Valley blog to discuss this young and evolving area of tech, and he pointed to some issues worth watching, especially in the realm of user experience (UX) and design.
Orange Silicon Valley: What can you tell me about the technologies you see right now — in satellites, 5G, and elsewhere — and the impact that they’re having on what goes into a car?
Hugo Wagner: I think from an overall design perspective, the terrestrial solutions envisioned right now in a 4G and 5G context don’t radically change the form or the shape of the car that we’re used to.
If you want to take a SIM card and put it inside a small box in your car, you can conceal it in a way where you can’t even see it — which is already the case. That also goes for GPS — if your car needs GPS.
If we’re talking about types of terrestrial connectivity — and if we’re talking about cars that might rely on satellite connectivity — to allow more ubiquitous data relay, or connection to an OEM data center — then what we’ve seen as far as trials go in the industry, entail sometimes the use of satellite antennae that OEMs try to embed, for example within the rooftop of the car. So it does not radically change the design of the car, and we won’t see really novel design on the roads if you just want to tackle the connectivity issue.
You can get a car to be connected 24/7, whether its terrestrial, wireless, or satellite, so it can be anywhere, any time, and that won’t change what you are used to.
OSV: Looking ahead, what kinds of advantages will that type of connectivity provide to the person who is sitting in the vehicle, and how will it change the experience that they are having?
HW: It turns out that customers demand connectivity everywhere. So some customers would be interested in having Wi-Fi on board, for example. They’d be interested in watching Netflix in their car without having to use their data plan. So you could envision that type of user activity for other people and the driver.
OSV: What does this future do to the experience of living and working in a vehicle?
HW: I think that they’ll tend to do everything they do right now on their smartphones and tablets. For instance, when someone is sitting in the subway or on the Caltrain or bus, just looking at their cellphone or laptop, it’s going to be the same type of seamless connectivity for the user experience.
OSV: What are the most interesting examples of using that kind of technology in concepts for autonomous vehicles that you have seen?
HW: Right now it makes sense for OEMs — car manufacturers — to converge toward this type of connectivity, because they will want to do software upgrades. And right now you can envision them making those upgrades over the air, at the same time, and for a fleet of cars. And one way to do that seamlessly would be to use satellite assets. You could do it a very low latency and at pretty high speeds if you want to.
OSV: In terms of how the cars look, let’s get over the external design of the vehicle. You’ve said that it shouldn’t impact the profile of the vehicle very much. Could you talk to me a little about the design implications for what these technology upgrades will do to cars or what demands might be introduced?
HW: It’s interesting. Some startups we have been working with have been working with the design of flat antennae that are 30 by 30 centimeters, and that might create some drag if placed on the rooftop — and of course that’s something that you want to avoid. The same goes with aircraft; if you want to provide in-flight connectivity right now — if you are using the Gogo service, for example — they’re putting a 2-Ku antenna that’s quite flat, but not flat enough to reduce drag, on top of the aircraft. So the same goes with cars. We can foresee better design for the antenna or a better way to embed the current designs.
OSV: What kinds of opportunities do you think that opens up for the design world? Particularly, you had commented to me before the interview about potential applications for generative design.
HW: I think generative design is going to have an interesting role to play there. First, though, what is generative design? You have a bunch of requirements. You know you want to end up with a product — an object — of which you are not 100 percent sure what dimensions or form it should have. But you know for sure that it needs to sustain a kind of strength requirement, stiffness requirement, etc. So in the context of generative design you could say, “This is input that I’m giving my computer for my car to work normally.” And if the software does a good job, then it would give you an output that looks like a car. It looks like something you would actually want to manufacture, and that answers your physical constraints. But from a user experience point of view, you might want to add an additional layer that takes into account what the output looks like not only from a physical perspective, but from a pure human interactive perspective.
[In addition, externally] you’re not only talking about a driver sitting in a car; you’re talking about the implications of the car’s design to other cars in the context of fleets or to other people.
OSV: Sure. You have mixed fleets on roads; you have pedestrians; you might have human-operated cars among autonomous vehicles.
HW: There is a branch of design that is already interested in this type of human-machine interaction [referred to as “HCI”], but it is going to have to do an even better job at preventing other types of situations that can arise from the use of connected cars.
OSV: You have a deep background in aerospace and flight technologies, in addition to your work with communications involved with autonomous vehicles. Are there any UX issues you’ve seen there that could have lessons for self-driving cars?
HW: A case was made after the Air France accident in 2009 off the coast of Brazil where the entire airplane went down. It was a pilot error, but some people started saying that pilots were inadequately trained, because they are trained on modern aircraft, they would be trained to use multi-functional displays, when they should be trained — maybe — with older equipment so that they could react in cases of turbulence in a better way.
The reaction time can be quicker. If you need to grab a switch or a small button in a turbulence event, you might be more prone to do it more accurately with an old fashioned button like we used to have in planes. Boeing announced that they would roll out a touchscreen within their commercial airliners to respond to customer demand, but after the Air France accident, a case can be made, and people started questioning the use of these new displays. Because most of the time they contain more information than you need, so it’s also a distraction. It might not be the best way to control a situation. I think that analogy can be made for connected cars as well.
OSV: I can completely understand that — particularly if you have an autonomous vehicle scenario where the driver is not actively in control. If you think about active driving, you’re already at a heightened state of awareness watching what’s on the road, especially on a highway. If you you’re sitting there in an autonomous vehicle, that situation that may need you to intervene and have a driver intervention moment is going to come abruptly, and you’re going to have to transition your state of mind very quickly.
HW: Exactly. So from a design standpoint, newer and more digital might not always be the answer.