Connected cars have a problem—most of the things that they are supposed to enable, like browsing Facebook while you roar down the autobahn—are illegal. And the ways they were supposed to enable this—for example, touch screens—are disliked by drivers, who still prefer good old-fashioned knobs. Whoever can solve these design challenges without increasing roadway deaths or cheesing off purchasers of new cars could transform how we interact not only with cars, but also everything else in our environment that might benefit from a less obtrusive interface.
And these solutions can’t come soon enough. General Motors will roll out a bunch of 2015-model Chevrolet cars with onboard fourth-generation (4G) mobile broadband. Google just announced the Open Automotive Alliance to push its Android operating system into cars. In a few years, most auto manufacturers seem to think our cars will be like our smartphones—complete with apps, stream music, and better navigation. By 2018, the connected car market will be worth some €40 billion ($54 billion).
It might sound improbable, but if connected cars are designed correctly, “The experience you’re going to get is safer than using a smartphone,” Joe Mosele of AT&T’s “emerging devices” division told Quartz.
Tobii is a 13-year-old Swedish company that makes eye-tracking software. Sensors watch where your eyes are focusing on a given display area and react accordingly. Look up or down to scroll. Look left or right to move to another menu, flip between screens or change apps. Stare directly at something to select. After seeing a demo, Quartz can attest that it is an immensely empowering feeling to be able to control something by doing nothing more than looking at it.
In cars, Tobii’s makers envision a heads-up-display that will allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road while also using apps. As an added bonus, it can alert a drowsy driver if her eyelids begin to droop.
Shai Leib, the creator of California-based Ask Ziggy, a popular Siri-like app for Windows Phone, thinks your voice is the most natural way to tell your car what you want. Leib paints a future in which you talk to your car the way you would talk to your co-passengers. If you want the navigation system to find you a decent pizzeria, for example, simply ask for pizza. “Once we understand what you said, we semantically understand what you need, so we would tell the user we found several restaurants. The first one is 0.7 miles away. Would you like me to navigate to it? And the person would say yes go ahead. And then the system would start the map.”
Why talk or look when you can gesture? Michel Tombroff says 3D cameras are the way to go: unlike normal cameras, they can understand where in space your hands are and how they’re moving, which should allow your to issue commands just by swiping in the air. His company, Belgium-based SoftKinetic, already provides the technology for use in games on the PlayStation 4, and Tombroff believes it can work in cars as well, first for information and entertainment and later for more advanced features, such as detecting when a driver is nodding off.
The advantages of gesturing in the air are that it lets you keep your eyes on the road and at least one hand on the wheel. The system could signal that it noticed you by making a sound or showing something on a display. The tricky part for it is to figure out what to pay attention and when. “If you’re in the middle of a conversation, you don’t want to turn up the radio” by mistake, says Tombroff.
None of these ideas is yet ready for the road. Tombroff admits his technology is not yet cheap enough, Leib says Ask Ziggy won’t be in cars before 2018, and Tobii’s eye-tracking is a revolutionary shift that will take some getting used to.
That leaves plenty of time for car-makers to figure out what works best. In the end, it need not be one or the other. In conversation, people use their eyes, their hands and their words together, providing interlocutors with much more information than any one of those three alone. There is no reason cars can’t adopt a mix of technologies as well. Some cooperation has already begun: Leib says he is working with a manufacturer that is is combining hand gestures with speech. The way we connect with our connected cars may not be that different from the way we connect with each other.