Throughout history, the car industry has always been of the most receptive industries to emerging technologies. Since Henry Ford open the doors of Ford at the beginning of the 20th century, technology has redefined the way cars are manufactured, operated and maintained. Technology has already redefined the way cars use fuel, with electric, hybrid and solar energy systems beginning to displace the internal combustion engine and gas-fed engines as the driving force of the future.

However, the growth of autonomous technologies, and ongoing computers have simultaneously begun to increase user interactivity whilst decreasing the need to take direct control of ‘driving’. The development of autonomous technologies will redefine the driving experience, as the user begins to handover control to an onboard navigation system. One is sure, the cars of the future will be autonomous and interactive, and both tendencies are closely entwined with each other.

The Growth of Autonomous Technology

The biggest change that has already occurred in the automotive industry as a result of technology is that of autonomy. Manufacturers are in the process of developing the blueprints for self-driving cars. So far this pursuit has brought consumers active parking assist and advanced cruise control. Cruise control takes control of the throttle and flow of air and fuel into the engine. A vacuum driven mechanism pulls the throttle cable to control the flow. Many modern cars feature similar autonomous systems like Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB). AEB systems use radar, cameras and lidar technology to assess the road ahead and work out potential collisions. These systems generally inform the driver that action is needed to avoid a future collision, and then if no action is taken, AEB will brake on behalf of the driver.

Another autonomous system that recently featured in the Google Car, is road-user interpretive software that has been programmed to interpret the common road behaviour of other drivers. Shape and motion descriptors allow the cars central processing unit to make intelligent decisions in response to the movements of other road users. The system is sophisticated enough to be able to ascertain whether surrounding road users are cars, bicycles or motorbikes based on their speed and their movement patterns. Laser sensors have enabled autonomous technology to develop an understanding on the movement of vehicles around them.

Audi’s adaptive cruise control is an example of a system with a built in stop and go function. It takes the collaboration of 30 control units to analyze the surrounding environment of the vehicle. The Audi’s cruise control regulates the speed according to the distance between the driver’s car and the vehicle ahead all the way from 0 to 155 mph. Two radar sensors at the front of the vehicle enable the system to judge the distance and users can customize the rate at which the system accelerates. The system is quite limited with regards to deceleration. Such cruise control systems are capable of proactive supporting drivers but they aren’t completely autonomous.

On the current market, the BMW 7 Series has the capability to park itself without the owner’s intervention. Likewise, in 2015 Google started testing self-drive cars with remote sensing technology, where a laser was mounted on the roof to generate a 3D map of the surrounding area to navigate automatically. The growing prominence of cruise control systems, and self-parking systems in the BMW 7 Series indicate that fully autonomous systems will be the next phase in the auto-tech revolution. Today, autonomous technology is in a rudimentary form, but the foundations have been laid for an autonomous revolution in the future.

Greater user interactivity

As computers have become more central to the mass production of automobiles, the capacity for user interactivity has increased enormously. Today, every car produced has some kind of onboard computer that controls a wide range of functions. Many onboard computers enable the user to control GPS, cruise control, and vehicle temperature and even exhaust emissions. These onboard systems have increased the level of user interactivity available to drivers around the world. Today, drivers can input a destination into their onboard GPS and run on-board diagnostics to identify any problems with the vehicle subsystems. User interactivity as characterised the way that our vehicles are designed and used.

Following the smartphone revolution, the automobile industry introduced smart dashboards, with cars making use of onboard tablets that enable users to read their phone messages and play music through the stereo with one interface. Technologies like Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto enable users to enjoy the functionality of a phone without having to pick one up. In practice, this means that people will spend much less time looking at their phones as they’ll be able to interact with a larger user interface instead.

Despite this, interacting with an onboard computer remains a distraction from the road ahead. Or does it? As part of the emphasis on user interactivity, we are seeing manufacturers implementing features like Gesture control, a technology that enables users to take control of their radios through the use of hand gestures. In the BMW 7 Series, a small sensor in the control panel of the roof monitors the area in front of the screen to read your gestures. With the 7 Series Gesture control, you can change the volume with a circular motion and answer or dismiss phone calls by swiping to the left or right. Users also have the opportunity to create their own custom configurations if needed.

Autonomy and Interactivity Define the Future

If the increase in user interactivity and autonomous features has revealed anything, it’s that the automobile industry remains committed to the romantic vision of the ‘self driving’ car. As autonomous systems take over, consumers will expect more user interactivity as they travel. It stands to reason that the less time drivers spend ‘driving’, the more time users will want to interact with onboard technology. Thus far, developing autonomous technologies has remained a challenge, and although cruise control has been incredible useful, manufacturers have a long way to go before implementing fully functional auto-driver systems that operate without oversight.