Carmakers looking to VR to keep people in self-driving cars engaged

SHANGHAI • Audi, Nissan and other carmakers are banking on talking cartoon characters and other virtual reality (VR) experiences to keep drivers and other occupants of future autonomous vehicles entertained, car industry executives said.

Carmakers have long focused on getting drivers to sit tight and pay attention to the road. Now, as the industry moves to self-driving cars and drivers become passengers, they face a new problem: how to tackle passengers' boredom?

"Once customers do not need to drive anymore... then the question is what... can we offer to customers inside this car," Mr Boris Meiners, director of Audi China's digital business and customer experience, said at the CES Asia technology trade show in Shanghai this week.

Start-up holoride, co-founded by an Audi subsidiary, for example, demonstrated at the show how it wants to turn road trips into VR experiences, allowing passengers to swim with whales or through sunken ships in the deep sea while on a drive. As the car speeds up or steers sideways, the movements are logged by a computer in the car's trunk which adjusts the passenger's view in the VR goggles accordingly. It also prevents the passenger from experiencing motion sickness.

Nissan showcased a set of goggles for drivers and passengers which could deliver real-time information and project a talking cartoon character that communicates with the wearer. "We want to fulfil people's emotional needs," said Mr Tetsuro Ueda, expert leader at the Nissan Research Centre. "Rather than the driver, we want to focus on the riding experience for all passengers, including the driver. Because when it comes to the stage of autonomous driving, the driver's control is less and less, and the interaction with the surrounding passengers is increasing," Mr Ueda said.

Other carmakers, tech firms and start-ups which are pouring capital into developing self-driving vehicles include Tesla, Alphabet's Waymo and Uber Technologies.

While studies show it will take time for the public to trust riding in fully autonomous vehicles, companies say they need to start investing in anticipation that the vehicles would eventually catch on.

Audi's Mr Meiners and Nissan's Mr Ueda said the virtual experiences that their companies are developing would likely be deployed only when the industry reaches "Level 4", or fully autonomous standards, in which the car can handle all aspects of driving in most circumstances with no human intervention.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2019, with the headline 'Carmakers looking to VR to keep people in self-driving cars engaged'. Print Edition | Subscribe