We just drove a 2-tonne Land Rover like it was a remote control car, using an iPhone.
We've spent the day at Jaguar Land Rover development headquarters to see its Technology Showcase. This is essentially an early look at all the tech it's working on, which we should see appear in the next decade or so.
From mind reading to textured air touch controls and haptic pedals, we've been blown away by what the very near future holds. We'll start with that remote control car.
Remote control Land Rover
The idea behind the remote control Land Rover is that you can control the car from outside. Unlike the BMW 7 Series, which uses the key fob to remote park, this uses a smartphone - in this case an iPhone - to let you control the car completely.
So for a farmer opening a gate, he can move the vehicle through and close the gate without having to hop in and out. Or for someone in town who comes back to find a car parked so they can't climb in, remote control it out. Or for off-road driving, where you're at such a steep angle you can't see below the bonnet, just hop out and control it manually, guiding it over every bump.
The feeling was initially disconcerting. But it was so easy to use we were eager to go faster after just moments of use. The app is simple with a wheel you control by touch and a break power bar that can be moved down to release break and up to engage. As you release the break the power, which you can pre-set, engages. The car is limited to 30 per cent but that's enough to get up a 1:2 gradient so you shouldn't need more. And if you let go of the screen everything cuts off safely.
While the version we tried used Bluetooth we were told the final model will use Wi-Fi, meaning you can work it from further away. Now we just have to hope legislation isn't too much of an issue. Driving a 2-tonne car with an iPhone just feels like maybe you might need another licence.
Check it out in action here. The automatic Multi-Point Turn, also shown in the video, we'll talk about in a second.
Mind reading and smart health monitoring
One of the future looking technologies shown off was mind-reading in the car, in order to gauge the driver. This used a metallic connection in the steering wheel to measure brain waves.
There was also a separate sensor in the seat that measured heart and breathing rates to gauge stress levels.
The idea is that the car will monitor the driver and know when concentration lags or tiredness kick in. Action can then be taken like a warning alarm or, in the case of stress in the Jaguar, engaging the massage seat.
Touchscreen without the touch
Being able to lean towards an icon on a screen and select it without touching can reduce that time a driver looks away from the road. That's why two new technologies are being worked on that can predict your selection on the car's menu.
The first uses a sensor, like Leap Motion, to see the angle your finger is coming in at so it can let you select an icon without actually pressing it. Equally, if you press the wrong one it can infer what you wanted to do. A bit like a smart keyboard in your phone, it may also be able to learn patterns to improve predictions in the future.
But it won't just be a poke and guess, you'll be able to feel the selection with feedback right in the air. This felt odd. Using an ultrasonic transducer the air was disrupted so when we touched an area it felt like a breeze, but was actually frequency vibrations. These can be varied to offer different touch sensations. So, technically, buttons could be in mid-air that you choose by feel alone, so you never need to look away from the road.
The self-learning part of the car is also being developed currently and will be able to learn a driver and their patterns. The future plan is to have it adapt radio station, satnav, seating position, climate control and even alert you if you forget your phone – all for a specific person on entry to the car.
What better way to alert a driver to slow down than to tap his accelerator foot? This system has been created using feedback that can give the driver a sense that the pedal is pushing up. This felt so much more natural than warning lights or noises. A single push was like being tapped on the shoulder to get your attention, it felt natural to ease off the pedal.
There is also a double tap option and an ability to offer resistance. This way once you go over a set speed, like the legal limit, the pedal becomes tougher to press down to go faster. A brilliantly natural feedback we're looking forward to seeing in cars soon.
Bike Sense is another system similar to this that will use a seat actuator to give you a tap on the shoulder, along with a coloured light on the side window arch, when a cyclist is close. This way the car is aware of cyclists so blind spot issues should no longer be a problem.
Sight beyond sight
Jaguar Land Rover told us: "There will be no driverless car. We don't want to create a robot. We want people to enjoy, relax and have fun." But that doesn't mean it's not automating almost everything it can. The idea is to have an option to automate everything but you remain ultimately in control. A bit like a driver who takes over when you want.
For example we tried Multi-Point Turn. This is a new system that allows the car to make a 3-point turn, or however many points are needed, to turn around. It does so controlling the speed and wheel. So if you're stuck in traffic and want to turn around, the car can do it more efficiently and faster if you select this mode. This is part of Jaguar Land Rover's goal to earn drivers' trust to ease automation into its cars, rather than forcing a sudden leap of faith.
To implement this, sensors are being developed to make all the cars able to offer 360-degree awareness. Since lidar, like those used on Google driverless cars, is expensive at about $70,000 a pop right now, other alternatives are being developed. Solid state lidar, using an optical phased array, has just been cracked which should make it cheaper to produce and drive the price down. But even lidar has weaknesses, it can see cotton for example but can't pick up wool, putting a pedestrian in a wool suit in danger. By using multiple sensors there should be no weak spots.
A combination of radar, lidar, structure light overlays - which literally shines light to show variation in terrain - and infra-red should make for a complete view of the road.
Another system has been developed using current sensors to detect pot holes. This way cars can inform other cars, and the local council, that the road has an issue. It can also allow for adaptive suspension so as to cushion the passengers and protect the car.
When will we see this tech?
All of these developmental technologies will be appearing over the next decade, some sooner than others. Many of the sensors mentioned are already in the cars so some could be a simple software update away. But there are legal issues and legislation to consider too.
We were also shown Jaguar Land Rover's use of virtual reality. This means that car planning can be done faster and more efficiently. They can even plan how the production line will go ahead of time. The result should be changes in cars appearing faster than ever before.
Here's hoping the smarter, more automated car of the future arrives soon rather than later.