I’d like to begin by understanding why this new agreement enables a revolution in HMI and what that revolution is.
Advances in HMI always come with advances in technology, new capabilities and new UX thinking. This agreement means that Volvo Cars is adding new technology using Unreal Engine that enables faster, more capable graphics and more efficient development tools for designers and developers. More efficient development means we can be faster at providing customer value. This really opens up the possibilities for creativity to create richer, more performant visuals to provide information to the user including features for non-drivers and enhanced safety systems in the future.
You mention safety, clearly a core value for Volvo Cars. Is complex HMI compatible with those objectives?
We believe that we can offer all the capabilities in a safe and focused design for the drivers. When we launched the XC90 in 2015, we specified a one touchscreen system that was easy to operate. We could have just added flashy features, but the distraction and cognitive load would have compromised our core safety mission. Instead we thought about how we design the interaction with the system, to be safe and focused and we’ve continued that philosophy in our next generation cars. The amount of information in a car should be easy to handle while driving.
So, we asked ourselves; what new approaches can we adopt that allow the driver to safely handle more information without significantly increasing the cognitive load? Answering this question is a function of our in-house research. Also important are the real-time, game-quality graphics enabled by Unreal Engine, which allows us to do things we could never achieve with developments of traditional HMI technologies. We are seeing it as the beginning of a new generation of HMI that offers much broader opportunities for Volvo Cars.
As an example, we are looking at how to represent data from external sensors (there will be many surrounding each new Volvo car with even LiDAR announced as standard on the new EX90) to provide more awareness of what is around the vehicle. As we move to higher levels of driver assistance, visualising what the vehicle is seeing and the decisions it is making will be one of the most important ways of building driver confidence, leading to a safer and more relaxing experience.
Can you expand on what new opportunities this new approach might open for you?
We have ideas like the ones we talked about, but the new technical solutions will allow us to implement new concepts we aren’t even aware of yet. We are seeing this as a big step forward in technical capability and although we have lots of ideas for how we will use it for adding value in the next generation of vehicles, I don’t think anyone really knows where this will take us. With over the air updates we can implement new functionality when it is ready and whenever our customers will enjoy or benefit from them.
We are already mapping many opportunities to provide entirely new functions and services. These may be creating more value from existing data and hardware, for example using the external sensors to help the driver understand the environment around the vehicle, visualising information we have about the vehicle speed or direction or highlighting objects in low-visibility situations. Or they may be completely new ideas, building on the incredible opportunities for new functionality delivered by real-time connectivity with the cloud, with other vehicles and with infrastructure.
Doesn’t more information and more interactivity mean more distraction?
The secret here is UX design and research. The short answer is no if you design the system in the right way. Some solutions out there provide more and more information, buttons and images. People have to learn where to find actions and information, and this can overload people in some situations. Our philosophy is to provide the right information at the right time and be really focused. These are the same principles we see in a lot of our favourite experiences, and we layer in what we know from the research we have done on how to design for safe systems.
Another thing we’re doing is exploring the new capabilities in technologies like Unreal Engine. We can now provide a lot of information packed into rich, dynamic visualisation that can be understood very quickly: like representations of objects seen by the sensors around the vehicle, an example of something that must be quick and intuitive to understand.
Does all this activity mean that Volvo Cars will be establishing a substantial in-house software activity like Volkswagen?
We are recruiting and training many more in-house software talents across the business. That means many different skills, and of course we are hiring UX Design professionals as part of our global Design and UX team. We are also trying to be clever with our processes so that we focus resources on customer value generation. In my area, one of the most important developments is the closer relationship between designers and engineers that is facilitated by Unreal Engine’s ease of use. We can have a much more efficient process in developing the HMI functionality because visual scripting and C++ capability provides a seamless workflow from concepts to production. Watching people work together throwing ideas around and being able to develop and test them on-screen quickly is really exciting.
A parallel policy is to purchase or partner with proven technologies rather than investing cost and risk associated with in-house development. This goes back to focussing our resources on generating value for our customers and our shareholders. Our partnership with Google is one where we are bringing in proven technologies for navigation and the Voice assistant. But we continue to look at other opportunities and industries to see how best we can bring value to our customers and further differentiate our cars.
That’s an interesting point about differentiation. Do you think there is a trend to more differentiation in vehicle interiors?
That’s an interesting question. Right now, we have a convergence of many new technologies in the automotive space – electrification, connectivity, autonomous driving etcetera that are offering a new playground for possibilities in the future. I think there will be exploration and differentiation in this space. At Volvo Cars, we are aiming to leverage these new opportunities in a distinctly Scandinavian way in terms of style and material. The software realm will be part of this exploration and this differentiation for us.
When will we see this new generation HMI in production?
The first Volvo car incorporating Unreal Engine in its next generation HMI will be the Volvo EX90 that was revealed in November 2022.