As cars edge closer to driving themselves, it can seem they’ve already forgotten humans are still here and in control. It’s not just that systems like lane centering, and collision avoidance often leap to action or lay passive without giving the human a beep of warning or explanation. As these systems advance and cars pick up more of the load while offering more distractions, these communication problems will only prove knottier. At the same time, increasingly advanced infotainment systems make it harder to keep your eyes on the road.
Acura thinks it has found the solution to both problems. This month at the LA Auto Show, Hondas luxury arm unveiled the Precision Cockpit, which it intends to pair with the Precision Concept vehicle it unveiled earlier this year—that look and tech could start appearing in production Acuras within a few years.1 The rethought cockpit boasts two big features: a touchpad thats more easily controlled without looking at it, and visual graphic depictions of vehicles and obstacles that the car is tracking via its myriad cameras and sensors.
These days, infotainment systems are commonly controlled in one of two ways: a touchscreen that pulls your eyes away from what’s ahead, or a hard to use, mouse-like touchpad that controls a conventional screen. Acura has blended the two, adding “absolute position mapping” to what looks like a traditional touchpad.
Instead of making you swipe several times to find the cursor, then move it into position on the screen, like you occasionally do with your computer mouse, the pad mimics the screen. So touching the top left, say, activates the menu item on the top left. Acura also went with a curved touchpad, so you know which bit of the thing you’re poking at without looking down—the same way the bumps on your keyboard’s F and J buttons orient your fingers.
As much as people like touchscreens in their cars, because of the parallels to tablets and smartphones, it may not be the best strategy for cars, says Acura product engineer Steven Feit. Touchscreens feel like the future, but they demand eye contact, and if they’re high up on the dash—the best position for the driver’s line of sight—they can be hard to reach. “The touchpad makes it easier to control the screen more safely, Feit says.
Then there’s the second problem: Knowing what your ride’s up to. Right now, cars that offer features like emergency braking and collision avoidance often do a crummy job conveying information about how the car will behave, and in what circumstances. When cars reach a point where they pass control between human and robot, any uncertainty is sure to be trouble.
Acura ditches vague aural alerts, flashy sci-fi graphics, and cryptic icons for a combination of augmented reality and graphic animations of the environment around the car to make clear exactly what the car’s doing—and thinking. Developed in collaboration with the Ohio State University, the Precision Cockpit will replicate the cars, pedestrians, animals, and cyclists that surround it.
That means you can confirm its aware of their presence—or be more vigilant if you see something the system hasn’t detected. The point of all this is to convey what the cars systems are detecting and acting on, enabling the driver to have greater awareness when fully in command or while yielding some control to the car.
This is particularly crucial during this phase between conventional control and fully-autonomous capability, when uncertainty could stymie the tech in the minds of consumers. “This is designed to build confidence in the systems for the drivers, Feit says. If they dont understand what its doing and why, they wont trust it.”
Once that trust is established, maybe you can fully relax while your car chauffeurs you to the mall.
1Post updated at 12:18 EST on November 29, 2016 to specify how Acura’s Precision concepts will impact production vehicles.