Will You Read or Watch TV in Your Self-Driving Car?

What will people do in a self-driving car?

The Auto Insurance Center, an industry-supported site, asked that question in a recent survey. Reading a book and catching up with friends and family via phone were the two most popular responses. But there was a three-way tie for #3. Equal in ranking to getting work done outside the office were watching a TV show and viewing a movie.

Considering that the majority of commuters fortunate enough to not be at the wheel peer incessantly at a screen, it’s reasonable to expect that the coming liberation from driving will result in even more buds and screens. I haven’t been this excited about the prospect of in-car entertainment since the days of putting the pedal to the metal to reach the drive-in for a kung-fu double feature.

BI Intelligence, a research firm, estimates that by 2020 there will be some 10 million cars on the road with self-driving features. That should make it possible to begin redesigning our automobiles as scaled-down home theaters.

Start with audio. The one person by necessity in the vehicle—the driver—has always had the worst seat in the house. He or she was pigeonholed too far away from the sweet spot to enjoy the full benefits of stereo and/or surround sound.

But once the demands of driving disappear, everyone is a passenger who can sit where they like. Seats could be more closely aligned to the car’s geometric center for passengers to benefit from the intersecting balance of five or more speakers. Seats could recline, with pop-up footrests. Facing forward would be just an option. Swiveling seats would be perfect for adjusting the view as attractions presented themselves from all sides of the road.

The intrinsic nature of car windows will change. They’d be transparent by default but adept at shutting out light on demand during a movie. The windows themselves could become screens, presenting the roadside view as augmented reality or virtual reality. The former would annotate landmarks as you drive by; the latter would show the same view as seen 30 or more years earlier, a kind of moving history.

The windshield could double as a wide movie screen. It would turn opaque white to reflect light from a projector that pops down from the car ceiling. Or the glass itself could embed OLEDs for direct display. Lawrence of Arabia and other movies with a native 2.20:1 aspect ratio would fit nicely on such a screen without much need to letterbox, stretch, or crop the picture, just like the director intended.

With a running time of 227 minutes, Peter O’Toole would make a particularly time-worthy traveling companion from Poughkeepsie to Syracuse, New York. Or you could fit two adjacent, vintage 4:3 TV shows on the windshield, each optimally illuminated for the person directly in front adorned with earphones—The Simpsons with a side of The French Chef, anyone?

The idea of retooling the next generation of sedans and SUVs for mobile entertainment has consumer electronics and carmakers chomping at the bit. The future feels a lot like the 1990s when manufacturers sensed how digital delivery and thin screens would change everything. Now with the prospect of self-driving cars fitted with high-speed streaming, morphing displays, and voice control, excitement is building.

I really look forward to being immersed in a great movie with theatrical sound while ensconced on a mobile Barcalounger that masks the fact that I’m stuck in traffic on a particularly dreary stretch of the Jersey Turnpike. Who would have thought that the real sweet spot between Kearney and Secaucus would be a driverless car optimized for home entertainment?

andyandmax's picture

Are the passengers in the picture already wearing neckbraces? That's not a very reassuring endorsement for self-driving cars. Perhaps they should have installed the software updates to the last self-driving car before it crashed.

Michaela's picture

They do look like neck braces until you enlarge the picture. Future fashion could be inspired by oversize turtlenecks--a world in which everything old is new again.

Biffstar's picture

As a person who loves cars, and loves driving, I have *zero* interest in self-driving cars.

I don't understand how the media and government thinks that every person out there looks at driving as a chore and that we'd all someday like to relax with some wine and cheese while being ferried around... No thanks.

I like driving.