Audi is wiring self-driving car passengers to see what makes them tick

German automaker's autonomous car cabin simulator studies how people will react to self-driving tech.

Audi

Audi is emerging as a leader in autonomous cars, having just announced that its new 2018 A8 flagship will be the first production automobile in the world capable of Level 3 self-driving. But it's also taking a long, hard look at how people will spend time in autonomous vehicles, as well as how the sensation of self-driving may impact people feel physically. This research falls under the umbrella of Audi's "25th Hour" project, which I first explored in June when Roadshow received an exclusive look at the company's Long Distance Lounge concept interior

At the Barcelona reveal of the A8 this week, the German automaker also unveiled a new interior project that's more simulator than concept. Conceived with the help of Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart, this augmented reality test bed consists of a starkly basic, open four-seat cabin with two rows of seats facing each other, surrounded by a bank of windows with integrated displays. The whole thing is enclosed in roomful of massive screens that project an immersive cityscape designed to replicate how one might feel commuting in an autonomous car.

I received the chance to experience how the simulator works firsthand, but others have gone before me: Prior to bringing the 25th Hour to Spain for the media, Audi brought together a group of 30 millennials "receptive to self-driving cars" to try out the lab on a single-seat version, measuring their responses using electroencephalography (EEG) caps covered in diagnostic electrodes, as well as galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors. 

Fitter, happier, more productive. That's the goal, anyway.

Audi

These participants were instructed to carry out a series of basic tasks during the simulated journey, all of which were captured on video, as well as via data collected by the sensors they were wearing. The test subjects were then exposed to varying amounts of stimuli, including varying background noise, social media updates, color and quantity of light, and so on, during which they were asked to perform a range of mental tasks.

Why go to all this trouble? In addition to observing if self-driving car motions might make people feel queasy, Audi wants to see how certain stimuli affects occupants of self-driving vehicles, including measuring "reaction times and error quotas." Audi is convinced that our future autonomous world will include passengers being bombarded with advertisements overlaid on vehicle's windows, and that will impact not only customer satisfaction, but well-being and the ability to take advantage of the recovered time that self-driving tech will bring with it. TFT and OLED foils already make this technologically possible, as I experienced previously in the Long Distance Lounge interior. Audi thus believes that the job of a future premium automobile will be to act as a protective membrane to keep such distractions to a minimum. 

I was able to try out the 25th Hour project, albeit without the fancy headgear. Instead, my wrist and fingers were strapped up with a GSR sensor. Being in the darkened chamber and having the simulation start felt a bit like being in one of those pod-shaped arcade games, albeit on a grander scale. The interior itself never moved, but motion was definitely felt thanks to the floor-to-ceiling displays showing the moving cityscape. With the display's visual images being separate from my inner ears' expected physical movement, there were moments where I felt like I might get a bit motion sick, particularly around corners. Audi's test administrators indicated that could be a possibility, but the sensation never got too severe, and my test was rather short.

Mirroring Audi's findings with its millennial test group, I found it easiest to concentrate on the simple tasks I was given when the windows were turned opaque to minimize distractions (particularly peripheral ones). In particular, blue lighting also seemed helpful, which Audi's research suggests "supports the ability to concentrate." Audi says its studies have uncovered that specific conditions are more conducive to specific behaviors, whether conversing with family, being productive or simply relaxing. 

There's clearly more research to be done, but it's easy to see how Audi's future products may be informed by these findings, perhaps with tailoring levels of light, sound and messaging to best match occupants' moods and intended tasks. 

I can't help but feel that decades from now, when autonomous vehicle are commonplace, reading about and seeing images of Audi's 25th Hour concept will seem laughably bizarre. In fact, I don't doubt that some will view it as just this side of pseudoscience quackery. Indeed, even now, reviewing the images for this story, it feels a bit this way. But to get caught up in the somewhat surreal veneer inherent in this project is to underestimate its importance and do such research a disservice. I have little doubt that Audi's work in this arena will actually pave the way for a smarter, more harmonious self-driving future.

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