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When Augmented Reality Does Its Job, We’ll All Want a Self-Driving Car


 By Sravan Puttagunta, CEO and Co-founder, Civil Maps

We’ve all seen augmented reality (AR) in shows such as Monday Night Football, in which broadcasters superimpose virtual lines and diagrams on the field, manually marking up video playbacks to highlight key maneuvers and strategies. This helps viewers easily focus on points of interest, rather than looking at everything on the screen. In this case, augmented reality technology provides an instantaneous, mental shortcut to understanding; viewers don’t need to guess where the action is on their TV or what’s going on. The drawn-in overlay provides that direction. When augmented reality is used for autonomous vehicles, there will be a similar benefit; it can help the car quickly figure out where to focus attention as it drives, eliminating the need for the vehicle’s sensors to search everything they see around them just to find the most relevant road signs. Additionally, AR in self-driving cars can provide a way for humans to communicate with the vehicle and to understand the car’s intentions.

With all the recent talk about the engineering challenges of automated driving, little has been discussed about the equally pressing, human-factor challenge: the personal and emotional aspect of self-driving cars. Winning the trust of passengers will take some deliberate, thoughtful effort. A recent University of Michigan study indicated that 95% of drivers said they would still want steering wheel access and other controls even if a vehicle were fully automated. Only 16% said they would prefer riding in a completely self-driving car over a conventional vehicle.  Clearly, we have a long way to go until people are comfortable with self-driving cars.

Like many other technological changes, adoption does not happen overnight.  When elevators were first introduced, many were afraid of them. Only the presence of human operators made passengers feel confident enough to trust their lives to these strange, new, up-down boxes. As elevator design advanced, the experience was anthropomorphized by a human voice announcing floor numbers. Riders felt more at ease; they no longer “needed” a human operator. It also didn’t take long for lighted, floor indicators to quickly become a must-have feature, showing riders their location and destinations.

AR can provide a similar, confidence-building bridge between the car and its passengers as they transition from semi- to fully autonomous driving. Displayed AR objects and information  — projected into the car’s sensors through advanced six-dimensional localization (6DoF) enable passengers to see how the vehicle is interpreting its environment and what it intends to do.

Building Trust Over Time with ADAS

Over the past few decades, people have already been getting used to automation in their vehicles through an array of popular advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). We’ve been delegating more and more aspects of safe driving, such as staying in lanes (LKA), assistance with lane-changing (LCA), automatic emergency braking (AEB), pedestrian detection, and so on. Augmented reality itself can be a form of ADAS — as a navigational head-up display (HUD) projected on screens. Analyst firm ABI Research predicts that 15 million AR HUDs will ship by 2025, with 11 million to be built right into cars. Moreover, a  2016 survey by McKinsey indicates that car owners with ADAS features are overwhelmingly satisfied with these systems and that their vehicle repurchase rate was quite high, ranging from 87-89%.

The Benefits of AR

As the demand for AR develops, there is room to get creative: from basic HMI interfaces, HUDs, and windshield displays to AR modules in wearables, or perhaps even a neural implant.  Good, user-centric AR design will make time spent in a vehicle enjoyable, safer, and even more productive. With 3D AR projections overlaid on top of what the car is seeing, for example, the passenger can gain enhanced situational awareness and develop trust in the car’s competence at interpreting its surroundings. Studies show that such feature-highlighting speeds up human recognition of details, as it does in the AR used during football broadcasts. In a car, a mere fraction of a second in reaction time can be critical. Should AR cues reveal that a car is not operating as expected, a passenger can make a course correction or take over altogether.

AR will also facilitate a transparency between human and machine, providing communication and interaction mechanisms such as voice, gesture, or other controls. The quality of these interactions may well become the key differentiator between vehicles and brands, a market-winning advantage for any company that provides a superior user experience.

Reimagining the Future

For now, automakers are largely focused on the basic challenges regarding autonomous driving, such as localizing vehicles to a map and getting cars from point A to point B. However, the real fun begins when testing with passengers swings into full gear. Creating the most enjoyable user experience will require just as much creativity as the mechanical engineering and sensor-designing now underway. Figuring out how to harness the potential of AR will require a balance of science, art, and human psychology.