The sensors, cameras, and radar systems that already make today's cars smarter have plans--big plans--for expansion. Recently, at its spanking-new facility in Mountain View, California, automotive parts supplier Delphi showed off its next generation of smart technology, and all its tricks focus squarely on what's happening inside the cabin.
There's still plenty of room for tech that looks outward at traffic and the road ahead, but Delphi is focusing inward--at the driver and passengers--to improve safety, comfort, and even your in-car infotainment needs. Of course, today's cars are already stuffed with nanny controls to manage things like braking and stability, but what Delphi demonstrated goes way beyond your tires' contact patches with the road.
It's as if Mary Poppins were sitting shotgun, watching your every move.
Your future car is watching you
Delphi's MyFi Connecting with Safety system uses a combination of interior and exterior sensors and cameras to focus on you, and whether you're paying attention to traffic. MyFi is the name of Delphi connected infotainment system, which includes voice recognition, touchscreens, and reconfigurable displays. The "Connecting with Safety" element monitors the driver's awareness and locks down certain parts of the MyFi system based on driver focus and traffic conditions.
Delphi showed it off on a Volvo XC60. Here's how it works: A small camera is mounted on the dashboard near the bottom of the instrument cluster. This camera focuses on your face, and uses an algorithm to determine whether you're looking straight ahead at the road. If you look away from the road for more than two seconds, a bright orange light flashes near the windshield. The light bounces off the windshield like a head-up display. It's bright enough to grab your attention--and, hopefully, force your eyes back on traffic.
If you ignore the warning flash, the Connecting with Safety system takes more extreme measures and locks you out of the center console's touchscreen. The screen dims and you can no longer press buttons or change radio stations. As soon as you glance back to the road, the screen brightens and unlocks.
The Connecting with Safety system is dynamic, which means its alerts and functionality (or rather, lack thereof) change with the traffic environment. The system connects to radars, sensors, and cameras on the outside of the car to determine whether you're driving in a heavy traffic environment. And if there is a lot of traffic, the system can lock you out of the touchscreen, start flashing the orange light whenever you glance away from the road, or restrict some of the infotainment features.
Delphi demonstrated this by showing a text message pop-up. In the low-traffic demonstration, the text message popped up on the driver's head-up display, and the driver could ask the car to read the message aloud. However, in a high-traffic scenario, the car simply showed that a new text message had arrived (a small number popped up on the message icon, looking somewhat similar to an iOS badge) but refused to let the driver access the text message.
Delphi's MyFi Connecting with Safety system is promising because it takes the driver's actual awareness into account, instead of frustrating drivers with catch-all infotainment restrictions. It also allows passengers to fiddle with the system while the driver is driving. We probably won't see full streaming movies on the center console just yet, but it's definitely a start.
Of course, when we finally see MyFi Connecting with Safety in vehicles, it may look and act differently. Because Delphi is a supplier, all of its proprietary technology is customizable and configurable to the look and feel of the automaker, and different automakers may implement different restrictions.
Autonomous cars, awesome infotainment
The company also demonstrated several other projects, including a Volvo with 360-degree sensing capabilities, and an Audi with a sweet rear-seat entertainment system.
The 360-degree sensing is interesting because it's a major component of autonomous cars, and also because Delphi's implementation is so discreet. The car has four short-range radars attached to its body, each with a 150-degree radius. The overlap is to ensure that the car has full 360-degree sensing capabilities.
The radars can detect objects up to 260 feet away, and a computer system uses an algorithm to determine whether objects are static (guard rails, trees, traffic signs) or moving (people, animals, other vehicles). The radars overlap but do have small blind spots, so they still need to be used in conjunction with other sensors on the vehicle.
Delphi also showed off an Audi with its full MyFi infotainment system, which included two rear-seat screens and a fancy, customized acoustic experience. The infotainment system can push separate videos to each screen--a nod to the system's dual-core, Cortex A15-based microprocessor. But even cooler was the system's patent-pending, rear-seat audio. The company has created what it calls "custom wave guides to deliver a 2.1 sound experience," essentially negating the need for headphones. Listeners can hear their respective soundtracks without infringing on the earspace of others in the car.
Delphi wouldn't tell me when we'll see any of this in production vehicles. Just a guess: We'll see all the safety tech in Volvo, first.