Riding in a car could soon be more like riding in a plane or a train — and that means you’ll start doing things in self-driving cars that you do on a flight across the country: reading, sleeping, Sudoku puzzles, and lots of screen time.
Research Frontiers’ CEO Joe Harary is ready for when cars become mobile entertainment centers and spaces for everyday activities. His company develops glass for car windows and sunroofs (including a lot of luxury cars for Mercedes, BMW, McLaren, and the eventual Fisker electric vehicle). But it’s not just any glass — it’s what the nanotechnology company calls SPD-SmartGlass.
The glass has a film that can change its tint at the touch of a button, letting in more or less light. In effect, the electrically controlled glass also determines how much heat gets into the car since a darker tint blocks sun. Harary sees all this as crucial aspects for self-driving cars, especially if the vehicles are part of a fleet and not your own. You’ll want to be able to customize your ride for what you’re doing in it.
“It’s not science fiction,” he said in a recent conversation, noting the glass tech is already in several vehicles on the road.
While you’re absorbed in the book you’re reading or video game on your mobile device, he sees windows as a connection to the outside world. When cars are truly driverless with a computer controlling the wheel, passengers need to be able to see what’s happening on the street. But windows need to be dynamic to accommodate streaming a video one moment and then checking the traffic jam ahead the next.
Combatting motion sickness, which might be more likely as we do more in self-driving cars, relies on letting in a view of the horizon. Future vehicle designs will eventually reconfigure how we sit in a car — if we’re not driving, the backseat can become more of a lounge with seats facing each other, or even facing backwards or out to the side. One day that Volvo car with a bed could be where you’re napping on your way to a meeting. These different ways of using the car mean varying amounts of light coming in: darker for sleeping, brighter for hanging out.
With more screen time, “you need to manage the amount of daylight coming in,” Harary said. Watching a movie will be easier if it’s darker in the car and while reading an e-book, you’ll want to let more light in. Like any entertainment system, you’ll want to use it in certain environments and with different “settings.” But if these are all happening in the same space (the car), the vehicle has to be able to adapt — and quickly. SmartGlass tech happens almost instantly; it’s not a slow transition like other tint-changing glass that gradually darkens and adjusts.
As cars become more than just a way to get around, we’re going to want them to work with what we’re doing — even if it’s just staring at a screen.