Autonomous is the name of the game for the future of the automotive industry. And, while it's an incredibly exciting development that offers many advantages, challenges abound too. For instance, take a pedestrian crossing. How will you know that the car has "seen" you and that it's safe to cross?
This is one of many scenarios that's being tackled by the Volvo Cars Safety Centre, and central to this whole debate is the issue of communication. While many motorists have probably never realised this, we communicate with cars all the time. For instance, cars communicate the message that they're approaching pedestrians and cyclists via the noise that they make. It's even possible to tell – without looking – whether a car is speeding up or slowing down… all thanks to that noise.
Other forms of communication don't involve noise. For instance, the eye contact between road users establishes the fact that "yes, I see you" or the friendly "please go ahead" wave. These forms of communication are just as vital as engine noise.
But, of course, with autonomous cars, these forms of communication will go out of the window. How then will we communicate with the vehicles on our roads? This is something that Mikael Ljung Aust, senior technical leader for collision avoidance functions at the Volvo Cars Safety Centre, is tasked with addressing.
He says that there are several keys to the success of an autonomous car's "language". One is global comprehension. "When designing communication for self-driving vehicles, it's imperative to have a global standard, because these cars will be everywhere and they will need to move around in any market, in a multitude of languages. So, you don't want to have a car speaking one communication language in one country, and a different language in another country. Because if you do, there are risks of misunderstanding," says Ljung Aust.
Another is the speed of comprehension. Take the pedestrian crossing scenario, for instance. "All you want to know is when you're coming up on the crossing as a pedestrian is 'Can I cross or not?' It needs to be quick, and it needs to be something that you can take in and decipher pretty much in the blink of an eye," he explains.
One of the technologies that fit both bills is sound. This doesn't mean that autonomous cars will be noisy. "In self-driving cars, you want to play as little sound as possible because we don't want to create sound pollution just because we invented a new technology. What we really need is three or four key sounds that tell you whether it's safe to cross," says Ljung Aust.
Volvo's autonomous 360c concept car employs precisely that. "The 360c makes use of a low-frequency sound. I know the guy who designed this sound coined it 'The Breathing Whale', which sums it up pretty nicely. It's just standing there breathing very slowly, and you feel it's safe to cross," Ljung Aust explains.
A car that "speaks" and "breathes"? The future is looking somewhat exciting!