Barbara Zelenay with Sir Simon McDonald in a concept car

Inside the future of cars

Image credit: Louise Murray

Bosch may be a name more familiar to many of us as a white goods brand, but it has a long history of innovation in car component design. We saw and heard the company’s vision of the future at its Boxberg test track near Stuttgart, Germany.

I am sitting in a glossy concept car, being introduced to Bosch’s vision of the car interior of 2021. It goes without saying this future is both electrified and connected and to some degree, autonomous. At my side is Barbara Zelenay of Bosch’s Car Multimedia division, an evangelist for the connected future. She explains: “The concept car envisages the vehicle as a third living space: that is, after our homes and offices.”

Two things strike me immediately. The steering wheel has been completely redesigned, metamorphosing into something that might be more at home in a helicopter cockpit, and the space formerly occupied by the dashboard and central console has been almost completely transformed into a set of multimedia screens. At first sight, the driver is able to access everything from the mundane and necessary speed and engine revs to a full entertainment zone.

Keen to demonstrate the capabilities of the concept car, Zelenay explains that there are four key ways in which to interact with the vehicle. “Safety is of course a priority. We are keenly aware of the need to minimise driver distraction – ‘eyes off the road’ time. The driver can communicate with the car by simple speech, gesture control, using eye-gaze control or via a touchscreen with haptic feedback.”

Most fun was the touchscreen that uses haptic feedback so that you can feel buttons without having to avert your gaze from the road, but the gesture control system also provides an ultrasonic feedback to the hand so you can tell if you are gesturing in the correct place. In earlier versions of these, uber-familiar demonstrators were able to operate the controls, but they struggled to convey an experience other than frustration to a new user. A huge improvement.

The demo imagines us leaving from home on a Friday afternoon for our weekend in a country cottage. Inputting the destination for navigation automatically notifies the house’s heating control system to turn on, and the window shutters to open an hour ahead of our arrival. Undeniably useful. But we are meeting friends there, and haven’t thought about dinner arrangements. What to do? Our future car has the capability to connect with a camera placed in the fridge at the cottage, confirming that it is devoid of any useful ingredients. Time to hand over motorway driving to the car’s autonomous function and focus on that menu.

Passing control to the car requires a positive, three second double press on both sides of the redesigned steering column, more like a game controller than a conventional wheel.  Confirmation that control is with the car is both visual and verbal, as handing over power to an autonomous vehicle would be unwise by way of a mistaken casual gesture.

With the car attending to the driving, we are free to settle on a menu, and a shopping list can be sent to the supermarket, which will deliver. The fact that no one is at home is not an issue in this connected future. The cottage security system will notify the car that there is someone at the door. We can check it is indeed the delivery of our barbeque ingredients and not a burglar, by accessing the door security camera, and allow the delivery into the cottage before we get there. Now that is a connected function that really makes sense to me – how frustrating is it to arrive home to find that a delivery from an online shop has been attempted and all that is left is a card to request redelivery?

En route, an email arrives cancelling a business meeting I had planned and this synchronises seamlessly into the navigation planner, which alters the car’s route accordingly. All set for a lovely weekend in the country.

What of the cyber security risk to an ever more connected car? It would be a not so farfetched nightmare scenario for a car to be hacked via a tangential connection to your home system. Bosch is keenly aware of its responsibilities. Vice president Stephen Stass of the Driver Assistance business unit puts it clearly: “Future cars need to be intelligent and even better than normal drivers; sensors have to be utterly reliable, as clearly failure is not an option. They need to be secure from hackers and this will never stop.” The company has designed a compartmentalised firewall between the ‘infotainment’ systems and those life-​critical car functions like braking and steering.

Away from the uber-connected car of the future, the highlight of the test track experience was fast, all electric, black, and had caramel leather seats. Bosch has taken an off-the-shelf Tesla model S and added another 15 sensors – six lidars, six radars, one stereo camera, a GPS sensor and a driver monitoring camera.

Sadly, I am not permitted to drive the beast myself, but our designated driver is a real-life racing driver. He logs in to the car via a facial recognition camera that triggers his personal customised settings: interior temperature, seating and mirror alignment, and entertainment preferences. Its primary function is to monitor the driver during periods of manual driving for signs of fatigue, distraction or inattention. During my short but glorious drive in the autonomous Tesla, I asked my driver one too many questions while he still had manual control of the vehicle. Eye tracking on the dash cam detected he was not exactly 100 per cent focused on the road ahead, notified him verbally, then took matters into its own ‘hands’ and brought the car to a controlled halt.

It’s obvious this works on a test track where any traffic is strictly controlled, but I can foresee a big increase in rear-ending incidents were semi-autonomous vehicles to be doing this in a city still dominated by conventional driver-controlled cars. Much of our ability to navigate complex traffic environments safely depends on our ability to anticipate behaviour of other drivers, and in my own experience, the AI behind autonomous vehicles does not behave like human drivers. Suddenly, a motorbike travelling at speed arrives around the corner of the test track as we near a T-junction. Smoothly, the Tesla’s sensors pick it up and again bring the car to a safe halt.

Parking assistance is familiar to the drivers of more and more vehicles, but Bosch has made clever use of the parking assistance sensors to measure up potential spaces as the vehicles move around town. This information can be transferred to a digital parking space map accessible to all. The joy that is the crowded multi-storey car park may become a thing of the past. The Mercedes-Benz Museum has just introduced automated valet parking. Drivers can leave, and the car will park itself.

Two-wheeling road users have not been forgotten. The Tesla may have been off limits to guest drivers, but I had the chance to take a retro-designed electric scooter for a spin. Like all electric vehicles, the rapid acceleration from a standing start was great fun, plus it put on an impressive amount of speed climbing up a 30-degree incline. Vehicles like these are already on trial in Berlin as shared vehicles. They are destined for a jump-on jump-off city fleet accessed by an app. Similar vehicles will be trialled in London soon and will undoubtedly appeal to the urban hipster keen to make an impression. A spare battery reduces any range anxiety and a helmet is neatly enclosed in the same compartment under the seat.

E-bicycles also benefitted with the addition of an anti-lock braking system or ABS, long familiar to car drivers in improving braking control. Bosch had set up a nasty gravel bed to show off its effectiveness. As a keen cyclist myself, it was really hard to trust in the system when your brain is screaming ‘do not apply the brakes right now’ at you. On a normally equipped bike, braking on gravel would be a guaranteed skid and a likely fall from the bike. Here the ABS handled the gravel with ease, and will – I hope – appear on urban hybrid bicycles soon, enhancing safety for both cyclists and other road users.

Bosch does not expect all concepts explored at the test track and in the show car to make it into mass production; some are clearly blue-sky talking points for a possible future. Yet as production vehicles move along the spectrum to full autonomy, I can share some of that vision of the car as a ‘third living space’. What was formerly drive time may become quality time. It’s up to us to enter into a dialogue and shape future design of our personal vehicles.

However, in this connected vision of the future, there is a risk that we will never be uncontactable, never able to excuse non-​communication with the office with a simple “I’m sorry, I can’t do that right now, I’m driving”. Now free to engage in a video conference call with the office at any time, perhaps the pleasure of driving will disappear too, as the car transforms itself into a mobile office, complete with an inbuilt personal assistant. 

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