Augmented reality will change the way we buy and drive cars

Forget glasses. AR may have its first big consumer success in cars.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
3 min read

Augmented reality is coming -- it's been the "next big thing" for about a decade. But perhaps it won't end up where you expect it. You can point to AR glasses and phone apps but I get most excited about AR in cars, where it has a mandate to improve vehicle purchasing, education and driving with deliverables that do far more than Pokemon Go

The virtual showroom

When it comes to selling cars, AR can do things a showroom can't, like making cars appear how and where you want them, not just on the dealer's lot in the colors the dealer has in stock. Placing a new car in your driveway in any color you want as you walk around it is radically different from the showroom experience. It also means cars can be summoned more casually than a trip down to auto row. There's no substitute for certain things the dealer's lot offers, but an AR presale process dovetails with the recent spike in interest around buying cars as digitally as possible.

Ford Mustang Mach-E AR - augmented reality

The living owner's manual

A future is coming where understanding your car won't require flipping through an owner's manual that seems like it was written with contempt for the reader. In 2015 Hyundai began offering AR owner's manuals, which allow you to point your phone at something inside the car or under the hood and have it come to life, explaining itself on your screen. 

Hyundai AR owner's manual

Audi, Kia and Mercedes are among the car manufacturers that have also done AR owners manuals, though they've yet to sweep the industry. As AR developers become more common in the auto industry and car buyers' phones contain better AR support, this should be resolved. If it isn't, manufacturers will lose that part of their relationship with their customers, who'll turn to YouTube instead. 

The road brought to life

Back in 2012 Mercedes-Benz showed me something called Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience, which considered the windshield to be one giant HUD that labelled the world around you while also supporting visual cues for a gesture-driven interface. It all sounded impossibly futuristic back then, but now it's hitting showrooms. The 2021 S Class debuted a new HUD with AR features. Watch my video to see how it brings adaptive cruise control to life, highlights the edges of the road in a curve, and flies little airborne indicators in your field of view that tell you where to turn. It even drops a map pin on your destination as you approach it. 

Cadillac Escalade augmented reality dashboard

Cadillac tackles similar AR benefits but in a different place: Its latest Escalade and coming Lyriq electric SUV drops AR features into the 14-inch curved OLED instrument panel display. That requires looking down at a display rather than up through the windshield, which I have reservations about, but the tradeoff is much richer image quality.

Also note that Cadillac also leverages another form of augmented reality by raising the volume of audio prompts as you get closer to a turn or other driving task, recognizing that AR doesn't have to be visual.

AR is coming because, like many popular technologies, it flourishes where there are problems to be solved and a new technology ready to find its place in the sun by solving them.