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What will the inside of a driverless car look like?

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Theo Amanatidis at the Department of Engineering, Trumpington Street. Picture: Keith Heppell
Theo Amanatidis at the Department of Engineering, Trumpington Street. Picture: Keith Heppell

When the controls and steering wheel are finally removed from the cabin of an automobile, the driverless car era will have begun.

But that is a while away – so what would the interior look like? That’s the question being addressed by Theo Amanatidis at the Department of Engineering as part of a PhD co-sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover (JLR).

Jaguar and the University of Cambridge came together to start this project, before I arrived here in 2016,” says Theo, and indeed there have been two researchers and two PhDs among others involved in the project. “We’re all looking at slightly different aspects of the problem,” says Theo. “I’m the only one doing entirely self-driving cars, so this is the most in-the-future bit of what Jaguar and Cambridge is looking at – the human aspects.”

The project required a simulator, designed by Theo, to be built from scratch. The seat sits behind the console and all around are screens hosting the road environment the driverless vehicle is travelling in. Speeds are slow-ish but steady: the vehicle cautiously navigates its way round the street furniture and objects (people). But the driving is not the key aspect of this technology: this is all about passenger comfort and ease of use.

“The idea is for people to experience a self-driving car and evaluate what technologies we can use for driverless in future – in other words, what we replace the steering wheel and pedals with,” says Theo as I sit in the driving seat of the mocked-up cabin and look at the basic keystrokes of a driverless display.

“We want to make this as accessible to as many people as possible, so there’s large buttons, clear text, different multi-modal interfaces... so it’s OK if someone is visually impaired or hearing impaired. And there are options for wheelchair access and guide-dog access. Accessibility is a particularly important aspect of research as self-driving cars mean people previously unable to drive will be able to use cars, that’s important to us, and is one of the key things the group in Cambridge is looking into.”

There has been three phases of the project, which is taking place at the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre run by Prof John Clarkson. The first began in October, the second is close to completion and the third – which begins this month – has to be completed before the project concludes at the end of May. Volunteers are being sought for the final experiment, especially women and people over 60.

“The ideas come from robotics,” explains Theo. “The first experiment was the most basic, then you add layers of functionality. The screen in front of you is the control area. It’s a touchscreen with physical buttons and voice commands, so when you get in, you can say ‘I want to go to destination A’, just as you’d give commands to an Uber or taxi driver. It’s an environmentally-friendly and convenient way to get from A to B.”

The ULTra, a revolutionary new rail transport system which carries passengers in driverless computer-controlled cabins, could provide a model for the car pods of the near future
The ULTra, a revolutionary new rail transport system which carries passengers in driverless computer-controlled cabins, could provide a model for the car pods of the near future

There are also three metrics measuring the response to the new-look cabin from the 40-odd people who take part in each phase of the experiment.

“The first is performance – how well you’re using the system. The second is usability – how intuitive the controls are to use – and the third is satisfaction, so how much they like to use the system and the interface.

“There’s a technology element and a human element. The technology is the screen buttons, the augmented reality software creating an additional visual layer over the environment – without a headset – and the vocal helpline. But what if you had two people in the car? All our experiments are with one person, but two people might know each other, or they could be strangers – so maybe there’s a shared-car element.

“Self-driving cars don’t themselves reduce traffic, they reduce traffic if you put more people in them. So if you have four individual seats, the occupants don’t necessarily have to know each other. It’s not my call to make, but we do still have to provide interfaces for them.”

Autonomous car controls will be and will look different.
Autonomous car controls will be and will look different.

So it might be that the interior seating would look like an aircraft or train seating arrangement – and what is to say we will not lose interest in the technology and just watch a film?

“Very much so,” replies Theo, “and that is what is likely to happen. The latest Tesla lets you play games or watch Netflix if you’re stationary. If there’s no driver why not watch Netflix, or YouTube, or check the tourist information?

“A lot of participants have asked for a table to eat or write on, like a train or a plane, and why not? The service owner could charge for plugs and wifi. One participant wanted space to be able to write and play music, she was taking three- to five-hour trips playing in an orchestra and wanted to practise, so that made sense for longer journeys.”

It has been quite a journey for Theo, a Greek who grew up in Brussels and has been in the UK since 2010. He was an undergraduate at Emmanuel College, then spent two years at JLR until starting a PhD.

“When I started here four years ago there was almost nothing on the topic of the cabin interior and comfort,” Theo says. “The inside and the experience of the users was almost an afterthought. We want to start this conversation and include in it some elements we think are particularly important, such as inclusivity, and we want to put those components in at the beginning and not engineer it back in afterwards as has been done for manual vehicles.”

Theo may be finishing his PhD in the summer, but he has taken the conversation about what car cabins will look and feel like forward, and he has done so in an environment which illustrates how a successful partnership between the university and a car maker can work.

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