A glimpse of the future

Audi isn’t just working on the mobility of the future, but also on ways to optimize how we use our time once that future arrives. Both themes came together in the “25th Hour” at the Audi Summit in Barcelona, where people could experience the idea firsthand.

AUDI AG (copy & photo)

You’re in a dark room. It’s cool and quiet – a stark contrast with the noisy bustle in the rest of the exhibition hall and the humid tropical heat of Barcelona in July. As you settle down into a comfortable seat, the octagonal interior of a simulated car is illuminated by the dim, soothing light of LEDs, and virtual surroundings are projected onto screens on all sides. The attendant asks you to hold the arm with the measurement diodes as still as possible, but says that apart from that you should simply enjoy the next six minutes. The arm with the measurement diodes? She’s referring to the diodes and wiring wrapped round your arm and hand. It’s all part of the experiment: the measurement diodes on your index and ring finger measure changes in galvanic skin response, and hence in stress levels, during the virtual journey.

The attendant’s second instruction – to simply enjoy your time – isn’t hard to follow. This is exactly what the vision of the “25th Hour” is all about: giving drivers back the time that they would otherwise spend driving. The experiment at the Audi Summit in Barcelona leaps ahead into the future and simulates fully automated driving with no steering wheels or pedals. The car drives, and the “driver” has time on their hands. “If cars no longer had steering wheels, premium mobility could be redefined. It would mean that in the future, people would simply be able to relax while their cars drive them from A to B. They could surf the internet, for example, or play with the kids. Or else they could focus on getting some work done,” according to Melanie Goldmann, Audi’s head of culture and trends communication.

The simulator in Barcelona was a small-scale version of a laboratory experiment that Audi carried out in partnership with the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO). The project wasn’t just about having more time but also about how to make optimum use of the extra time that autonomous cars will give people in the future. Audi built a special automated driving simulator with no steering wheel. Scientists could vary conditions in the interior of the simulator: displaying disruptive digital notifications on screens, dimming the windows, changing the ambient noise and color of the lighting. The laboratory experiment focused on young test subjects – “millennials” born after 1980 who are perhaps more likely to be receptive to the idea of self-driving cars. In the experiment, 30 subjects completed various concentration exercises, which mimicked what it might be like to work in an autonomous car. While they were doing the exercises, their brain activity was measured by an electroencephalography (EEG) helmet, and their reaction times, error rates, and subjective impressions were recorded. The EEG measurements emphatically confirmed what the researchers already suspected: the human brain is less stressed if there are no disruptive stimuli in the interior.

At the Audi Summit, anyone – millennial or not – could take a virtual nighttime tour and experience what driving without driving might be like. They were also given a small exercise to complete: they had to remember a loose sequence of letters while being bombarded with information and signals. Both this subjective improvised test and the official findings of the EEG measurements carried out in the lab show that it’s important to get the right balance between the quality and quantity of information. “In a digital future, there will be no limits on the imagination. We could give drivers absolutely anything – a veritable flood of information,” said Melanie. “But we want to put people at the center. We see cars becoming an intelligent membrane that provides users with the right information at the right time.”

The motivation behind the “25th Hour” is to explore how people in the future could make better use of the time they spend in self-driving cars. The project is based on the idea of intelligent human–machine interfaces (the precursors to these interfaces are still referred to as “cars”) that learn users’ individual preferences and flexibly adapt to them, allowing the customers of the future to have complete control over their time. In the “25th Hour,” Audi distinguishes between three types of time: “quality time” that people spend in their cars actively playing with their kids or phoning family and friends, “productive time” during which they work, take part in videoconferences, or prepare presentations, and “down time” when they relax while reading, surfing the internet, or watching movies.

At the Audi Summit in Barcelona, attendees could experience a simulation of what driving in a fully autonomous vehicle might be like. The idea was to give them a sense of the variety of content and visuals that could be displayed on the screens in an all-digital interior, ranging from notifications to adverts. Most participants’ stress levels (measured using the diodes mentioned earlier) went down the longer they spent in the simulator. This is a normal reaction, according to an expert from the Fraunhofer Institute: the situation was completely new and unfamiliar to most of the participants, but they quickly got used to it and were able to enjoy the “drive.”