The car of the future is emerging — in XR

Despite bad car news from Apple and Tesla, and the lack of true autonomous cars on the roads, innovation is still happening — just not where you expect.

It can feel like all the car news is bad news right now. Has innovation in the automotive sector been choked off? Apple is out of the car business, without ever launching a product. (Or is it?) Tesla has slashed over 20% of its workforce, including pretty much the whole of its Supercharger division, once perceived as its real competitive advantage as more manufacturers got into the electric vehicle game.

The worst news — especially for the climate — is that EV sales are not growing as fast as we might like, and certainly not as fast as the manufacturers would like. And self-driving cars – autonomous vehicles — have been five years away from hitting the road for about 15 years now. We were talking about them and their potential impact way back when NEXT was in Berlin a decade ago.

Are we stuck in a petrol-fuelled rut?

Well, no.

The EV transition

For one thing, in many countries, the end of the sale of petrol- and diesel-fuelled cars is in sight. Transitions are rarely smooth and linear, especially those that are reliant on building out an entire new infrastructure. We’re literally using new energy to power our new cars, and the old five minutes at the petrol pump model doesn’t translate easily.

While improved battery and charging tech will inevitably reduce charge times, we’re more likely to end up with a model of “fuelling” that looks very different from the old one. If you have to kill 20 minutes or more, wouldn’t you rather do that in a coffee shop, café, or even a pub? The “petrol station” may well go the way of the public telephone in the coming decades. And for many EV drivers, routine charging will be done at home, or on slow, cheap chargers attached to on-street parking. The whole model is different.

We’ve poked before at the new business models that autonomous vehicles could open up, especially for entertainment and work. But those still seem as far off as when we last put them on stage at NEXT. So why have we invited Timmy Ghiurãu, an XR & World-building pioneer, to NEXT24? Surely, Volvo aren’t just about to release the world-changing self-driving car? Well, probably not. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not still thinking about it.

From VR for entertainment to XR for car design

Volvo recruited Ghiurãu because of his expertise with eye-tracking. He’d co-founded a startup that they sold to Meta, but Volvo could see its value in detecting how engaged a driver was with monitoring the work of an autonomous vehicle. So far, that work hasn’t emerged into production.

But that doesn’t mean that XR doesn’t have a role to play right now. The trap we all fall into around electric cars is thinking they’ll be a like-for-like replacement for petrol cars. However, their whole engine and drive train is wholly different. Within certain aerodynamic boundaries, the cars of the next decade don’t need to look like the cars of the past few decades. So, there’s scope for some innovation here.

While some early examples — hello, cybertruck — have attracted mockery, there’s plenty to do in this space. This is why the first role that XR plays in cars is in helping designers visualise the future in a more profound and immersive way than they’ve done in the past. Volvo is using an XR streaming system to collaborate in design between the US, China, and the company’s Swedish HQ. This creates faster processes — and a reduced cost. Millions are saved in creating physical prototypes in the early stages of design.

Ghiurãu built a system for modelling cars in VR and XR on top of the Unity engine, that has enabled that sort of work. While his skills might have initially been valued for one project, that’s taking longer to deliver than we all expected, they’re proving useful in other situations.

The future of the car

At its iPad event in early May, Apple showed Porsche both using the Vision Pro for design work — but also as a sales tool, allowing potential customers to see how their car would look with different options. And Apple is also in the process of rolling out an enhanced version of its CarPlay technology that extends far beyond the entertainment screens to take over the whole instrument display of partner cars. The Apple Car might be dead, but the project’s work lives on.

All of this is a useful reminder that the future is hard to predict — and doesn’t always arrive at the speed we expect. The horseless carriages we’ve been living with for over a century are evolving faster than we expected — just in a different direction.

Picture by Kirill Tonkikh | Unsplash.