BMW on Letting Go of the Wheel

BMW’s user-experience gurus want to make hands-off driving feel safe, comfortable and fun. But are we prepared to let our cars take over?

Check out Routes to the Future: How We’ll Get Around, in which we explore the innovations – and obstacles – of a new era of possibility.

Are you ready to loosen your grip on the steering wheel? BMW is betting on it. As cars start taking over operations and decision-making, “their humans” will need to adjust. So the company’s user experience (UE) experts are figuring out how to transition customers who are used to feeling in control. After all, safety is a priority, but if the driver doesn’t feel safe and comfortable, it’s a no-go.

We asked Holger Hampf, head of user experience at BMW, to explain the company’s UE strategy.

Q: Some potential BMW customers already seek out autonomous functionality; others may not feel ready to hand over the controls. How will BMW transition apprehensive drivers?

Holger: Autonomy is introduced in stages. We guide the driver to feel more comfortable over time. Right now, assisted driving allows you to do things like brake automatically and measure distance in front of you. Five years from now, your car will drive autonomously on freeways. Taking another big leap, cars will be able to drive alone in more complex environments like city traffic.

You create the feeling of safety by introducing abilities to the car in certain steps.

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Q: How do you make the experience of “not driving” a car feel natural?

Here’s one example: We know that drivers can experience motion sickness if the vehicle acts unexpectedly. An autonomous car will tell a driver what it is about to do, like make a left turn. The car will adjust its behavior to make the experience less jolting. It won’t make sudden or very sharp turns. Without these adjustments, the driver would be constantly tempted to take the wheel.

Q: What is it like to drive your concept car BMW Vision Next 100?

Holger: The idea here is to make the driver more efficient. For example, the car features a heads-up display. It projects an image onto the windshield, directly in your line of sight, that helps you take in vital information more quickly. The image appears to be two yards ahead of you and allows the eyes to shift focus from the road to the instruments and back. And it takes half the time to process this information, because you don’t have to keep refocusing your eyes. It also prioritizes information; urgent warning signals are clearly differentiated from speed limits.

Q: Ultimately, how will it feel ride in a fully autonomous car?

When cars don’t even have a steering wheel, the experience is about winning your time back. Instead of sitting in rush hour traffic and feeling frustrated, you can be productive. You can work, make calls. Or just relax in the back of the car and watch a movie or play a game. On the outside, the car will communicate to other vehicles or pedestrians that it’s in autonomous mode. So everyone will know not to worry that the driver sitting there reading in a moving car isn’t a danger on the road.

The bottom line is that everything is possible. goldbrown2


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Holger Hampf is head of user experience at BMW in Munich.

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