Home/ Mint-lounge / Indulge/  Jaguar Land Rover and the future of the car

On a mid-morning in July, a bustling group of journalists milled around tables laden with sandwiches and salads inside a large hall at Jaguar Land Rover’s Gaydon Product Creation Centre in Warwickshire. All around the hall, JLR employees waited, some of them nervously, for several hours of presentations and demonstrations. Some of them stood next to cars, others stood next to mock dashboards, and one particularly energetic JLR product development geek stood beside what looked like a large aquarium.

It was going to be an unusual afternoon. And in more ways than one. This “Technology Showcase Media Event" was the first time ever, I was told, that JLR was opening up its research and development plans to international media scrutiny from such close proximity. Yes, there would be a slide presentation to kick-off the event. But afterwards, journalists would be taken around several individual mini-presentations on different JLR technology products, all in various stages of market-readiness. It was an unusually transparent thing for a car maker to do.

Car markers, all intensely competitive, in general, tend to hold their cards very closely to their chests. There is nothing they dislike more than revealing plans well in advance of fruition. Not for them are the beta testing and developer previews of the software industry. Nope. If car makers had a choice, they’d only tell you about cool new technology ideas 15 minutes before market launch. If they can help it, not even then. But on this day, JLR was going to let us take a peek at their handful of jokers. This included everything from software that integrated your smartphone apps into the dashboard display to a laser referencing system that shot beams and patterns of light from the fog lamps to help drivers negotiate obstacles. There was also a whole host of virtual and enhanced displays, and an ambitious plan to create a self-learning car.

“We are working on research projects that will give the driver better information to enhance the driving experience," Wolfgang Epple, director of research and technology for JLR, said before the presentations kicked off. “By presenting the highest quality imagery possible, a driver need only look at a display once. Showing virtual images that allow the driver to accurately judge speed and distance will enable better decision-making and offer real benefits for everyday driving on the road, or the track."

For far too long, car makers have remained somewhat resistant, or perhaps incapable, of integrating cutting-edge consumer technology into their products. For all the computing power that goes into vehicles these days, many cars still struggle to match the performance of smartphones when it comes to media, entertainment, navigation and communication. How underwhelming is it that in 2014, some car makers still advertise the fact, with great enthusiasm, that their on-board tech can connect to your mobile phone and read text messages aloud?

Ugh. Meanwhile, most on-board displays remained a mess of bad design and unintuitive interfaces.

In a sense, the car had become one of the final frontiers for responsive technology solutions. But what really muddied the waters for car makers was when technology companies began to take initiatives. Both Apple and Google have announced in-car “flavours" of their popular mobile phone operating systems, while the latter has made serious in-roads into self-driving cars.

Suddenly, car makers have had to up their game. But for a high-end car maker such as JLR, there is a fine balance that must be struck. “We want our cars to have the finest technology, but you don’t want anything that will undermine the driving experience," explained Del Sehmar, head of international PR liaison at JLR, and previously head of PR and communications for the brand in India. The idea, Sehmar says, is to enhance the driving experience, not to dilute it, or turn the car into a tech appliance on wheels.

He makes a great point. Nobody in their right minds will buy a self-driving Jaguar. They will, however, enjoy a Jaguar that is intelligent and self-learning—a car that has achieved unprecedented personalization but is constantly adapting to your driving style, and then loops information back to you, but at the right time and in the right quantities.

The ultimate idea, Eppel said, is to create a driving experience that is enjoyable, reliable, personal and safe.

So what will the JLR car of the future look like? We profile some of the key new technologies unveiled at Gaydon.

1. InControl apps

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InControl is currently available in some JLR models but will soon become a universal offering on all cars.

2. Laser referencing

Still in the development stage, laser referencing is a simple idea with big potential. The technology involves shooting patterns onto the road in front of the car with laser light sources. These patterns, at their most basic, help the driver get around obstacles. Not sure if there is enough space to squeeze through between those two boulders on the road in front of you? Shoot an intelligently drawn laser pattern onto the gap for an instant estimate. But JLR reckons that much more can be done with these patterns. What about connecting the system to the GPS and using laser patterns on the street to alert the driver of upcoming obstructions? Also a laser-scanning system can inform the off-road driver of the depth of murky water and other less obvious hazards. And finally development in laser light technology may eventually allow the car to have a single light source for both the laser referencing and headlights, thereby drastically reducing the size and weight of the lights assembly. So many great implications for a simple idea.

3. Virtual windscreen

Ever noticed those cool heads-up displays that fighter-jet pilots use? JLR foresees a future where such displays can be integrated into the entire windscreen of cars. The idea is to intelligently display information on the screen, so that the driver never has to take his eyes off the road. There are further applications too—such as indicating optimum driving lines, braking guidance and hazard or traffic alerts. The virtual windscreen can also be used, for instance, to create virtual obstacle courses to help train drivers. And, finally, high-performance drivers could use the virtual display to superimpose ghost competitors as they race around a track.

4. 3D cluster

Yet another piece of tech in an early concept stage, JLR’s 3D cluster uses multiple cameras that track the eyes of the driver to create a real-time three dimensional instrument readout cluster without the use of special eyewear. Besides being very cool—which is a good enough reason—the idea is to create a dynamic cluster display that changes according to situations. The 3D effect, JLR thinks, will be particularly useful in situations where it has to highlight faults in the engine or any other part of the car.

5. Self-learning car

In the future, this could be the culmination of all of JLR’s experimental technologies—a car that combines real-time updates, personal information and contextual data to create a highly personalized driving experience. And the car will do this by hosting an artificial intelligence system on board that will constantly learn from the user’s daily behaviour. Epple explained: “Up until now, most self-learning car research has only focused on traffic or navigation prediction. We want to take this a significant step further and our new learning algorithm means information learnt about you will deliver a completely personalized driving experience and enhance driving pleasure." The self-learning car will also, in a sense, use software to make the hardware smarter. If things go according to JLR’s plans, in the future, all you will have to do when you upgrade your Jaguar will be to take a back-up of the car database on your phone, plug it into the new car…and voila! You will have a perfectly educated car that knows all your driving quirks, favourite restaurants, favourite radio stations, driving pet peeves, weekend routines and even seat recline positions.

That future is going to be awesome.

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Updated: 29 Aug 2014, 09:37 AM IST
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