Think Self-Driving Cars Are Around the Bend? Time for a (Virtual) Reality Check

The new automotive tech to really watch in 2018 won’t be autonomy. It'll be augmented reality. 

WayRay

Autonomy has been big this year. Sort of. Though there’s been nearly endless, breathless proselytizing about the coming wave of autonomous cars and What It All Means for humanity—or more specifically, what it all means for Uber—the actual real-world manifestations of the technology have been limited. Cadillacs can now drive themselves down highways hands-free, as long as the driver still pays attention and nothing weird happens; the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class can power through traffic circles, as long as you’re actually doing the steering; and there are a few trials around the world of autonomous vehicles going on in severely controlled circumstances.

In short, autonomy is a very long game. It’ll still be years before we’re robo-taxied to work, as much as 2017 might have led you to believe otherwise. If the buzz in 2018 reaches similar levels, you might actually consider selling your autonomy-startup stock. Hype is never good.

But fear not—there’s another sliver of automotive tech to get excited about, one that’s just as critical, just as impressive, and actually loads more fun to driving enthusiasts than cars rolling themselves through traffic. It’s also a lot closer to fruition than true autonomous driving.

Augmented reality.

Not virtual reality, mind you—the variation of this tech that features heavy, claustrophobic goggles, worlds that have to be created completely on a computer, and tethering to hulking graphics-intensive gaming computers. It was the rage last year for holiday gifts, but is still struggling to find its footing amid a dearth of content and still-inaccessible pricing. 

No, augmented reality is the far more usable and achievable variant that overlays digital data on real-world scenes, whether through glasses or windows. It could manifest as virtual game boards materializing on your coffee table, monsters coming through your wall, virtual assistants helping physicians during surgery, navigation data guiding pilots through storms and around other aircraft, or battlefield aids pointing soldiers to the bad guys.

The truth is, AR has had a great year, and is poised to top it in 2018. Among its general advances—i.e., the tech itself, not its automotive applications—we’ve seen Microsoft’s breathtakingly good HoloLens gain traction among developers in a variety of industrial applications. They’re playing it smart, unlike Google did with the original Glass rollout several years ago, during which they insisted that it be a cultural badge rather than anything truly impactful. It’s trying again now with a revised product its targeting to businesses. 

They're not alone. Apple and Facebook made their software amenable to AR applications this year, the Smithsonian Institution began offering an AR app that brings its exhibits to life, Ikea launched an app that lets customers “place” its furniture in their home to see how it’ll look, and AR gaming—spawned by the Pokemon Go craze last year—continued its path toward becoming a $1.2 billion industry in 2018. Just this month, hotly anticipated—but intensely secretive—AR startup Magic Leap stirred the pot by releasing a modest five-second clip showing off its system’s capabilities, in conjunction with a music-video project it’s developing. Then, on December 20th, it finally unveiled the glasses at its website. They’re due to arrive—you guessed it—in 2018.

Then, of course, there’s the automotive realm. On the purely behind-the-scenes front, Ford launched a collaboration in 2017 with Microsoft to use HoloLens as a design-collaboration tool. That’s a big deal—but an even bigger deal might be the two bits of news that came out of the Los Angeles Auto Show last month. One long-term vision came out in the news that Intel CEO Brian Krzanich shared about the company’s collaboration with Warner Brothers to make an entertainment system that will keep occupants of autonomous cars amused with augmented-reality visions themed around Batman and Gotham City, as a way of testing the technology’s potential for advertising and other forms of mobile interaction. 

The second item from the show was the fact that Swiss AR startup WayRay took the top honor in the 2017 Top Ten Automotive Startups Competition for its technology that projects navigation, driver alerts, and other data—great restaurants, potential obstacles—onto the windshield. Think of conventional automotive head-up displays, but seamlessly integrated across the entire windshield and appearing embedded in the environment itself.

WayRay

That’s the key here—augmenting your reality with useful information in a way that’s far more organic and interactive than a simple head-up display. Furthermore, it opens up the potential for driving applications with an infinite range of possibilities. You could project braking points and gear suggestions to help you hone your technique at track days, or guide you through twisties on a motorcycle by projecting lean angles and riding line onto a visor display, as BMW demonstrated in a concept it revealed last year. Such innovations will enhance human driving. Autonomy, on the other hand, tries to take it away.

But it gets even better. Once all the safety and performance benefits are combined with AR technology, the driving experience will become truly next-level. Imagine your AR system flagging friends you’re meeting with as they drive past you on the road, or pointing out gorgeous overlooks you can hike to from the side of the road, or showing where and when the Moon will rise or the Sun will set so you can impress your kids with your astronomical savvy. Once the technology meets the essential functionalities we all expect from it, it will then deliver the ones we didn’t know we wanted. 

Will that all happen in 2018? No, but you can bet there’ll be a lot more fun action to track in the augmented reality field than we’ll see with the robot shuttles that won’t get here for another two decades...and it’ll likely help keep driving alive that much longer.