Carmakers and tech giants tap VR to tackle boredom for self-driving car occupants

While self-driving car technology advances are solving a host of problems, the one problem that is being introduced is boredom. How do you occupy the passengers of the vehicle as the car accelerates and steers sideways?

With the advent of autonomous vehicles, there will be no need for the driver to sit tight and pay attention to the road. While this may be a boon, it poses several question – what will passengers do and how do you keep them occupied?

Automakers intend to tap virtual reality and other technologies to solve the problem of passenger boredom.

“Once customers do not need to drive anymore…then the question is what kind of things can we offer to customers inside this car,” asked Boris Meiners, senior director of Audi China’s Digital Business and Customer Experience, at the CES Asia technology trade show in Shanghai this week.

To tackle this problem, Holoride, a startup co-founded by an Audi subsidiary, demonstrated its solution which turns the road trips into virtual reality (VR) experiences: it allows the passengers to swim with whales or through sunken ships in the deep sea while sitting in a cruising car.

As the car accelerates and steers sideways, its movements, logged by a computer in the car’s trunk, adjusts the passenger’s view in the VR goggles accordingly. The computer also prevents the passenger from experiencing motion sickness.

To this end, Nissan showcased a set of goggles for drivers and passengers which could deliver real-time information and project a talking cartoon character which communicates with the wearer.

“We want to fulfill people’s emotional needs,” said Tetsuro Ueda, expert leader at the Nissan Research Center. “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”.

Car makers and large tech companies and startups, including Tesla Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Waymo and Uber Technologies, are sinking in fantastic amounts into self-driving vehicles technology.

According to Audi and Nissan, the VR experiences they are developing will kick in only when the self-driving car industry reaches “Level 4” – fully autonomous with no human intervention.

“Many engineers are not confident about the rapid implementation of self-driving technology. So these virtual reality attempts may not come soon,” said Yale Zhang, head of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight.

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