As seen before, autonomous drive technology is a highly volatile subject. There are multitudes of firms around the world, both software and hardware-focused, that are actively researching into autonomy for vehicles.
Executive design director for Infiniti Karim Habib is tasked with developing the next generation of electrified vehicles and the development of autonomous driving for Nissan’s luxury arm. One of the first wrong beliefs he shatters is the image of futuristic cars in science fiction that do away completely with the steering wheel. The truth, he says, is far removed from the science-fiction.
“We could eliminate the steering wheel now if we wanted, because Infiniti introduced steer-by-wire to its production cars years ago, so the technology is ready and proven,” Habib says. “I’ve driven the next-generation prototype, which allows you to use a much smaller steering wheel that retracts into the dashboard, but there are legislation issues that need to be resolved first.”
The Infiniti QS Inspiration is a look at sedans of the future that will possibly have optional steering wheels.
If every car on the road was autonomous, there wouldn’t be a problem. The question is about operating in a mixed environment. If you need to take control, how quickly will it pop back out for you? How do you define ‘quickly’: milliseconds or seconds? “The technology is moving quickly but I don’t think we have the environment to go fully autonomous,” says Habib.
Infiniti is a relatively young brand having spent 30 years in business since its inception in Hong Kong. Perched on the doorstep of the world’s biggest and most tech-savvy market (Shanghai), the firm s in a strong position to take the lead in technology with a new breed of car. Infiniti previewed such a prototype at Auto Shanghai that features a retracting steering wheel much smaller than the norm.
The prototype was partly designed in China at the firms new Shanghai studios with input from sister facilities in London and San Diego. “While we have toyed with many freedoms, because electric propulsion allows us to completely reimagine the car, when it comes to safety, I don’t think there will be much change because we still need crumple zones and passenger impact protection,” says Habib, former chief designer at BMW.
Losing traditional components opens up the automakers to completely reimagine the car from ground up.
“That level of design freedom probably won’t arrive until the day we are 100 per cent accident-free, which means everyone is autonomous. That’s also probably the time when legislations and safety requirements will finally adapt. If we get to the point you could theoretically build little glass cubes on wheels, but no until then.”
Infiniti’s first electric vehicle is China-centric and scheduled to arrive within the next three years. New features courtesy of the electric drivetrain are a flat floor, no cumbersome dashboards hiding nearly obsolete wiring and air-conditioning components.
“While keeping in mind legal and safety requirements, having a completely flat floor means we no longer need to have four people all facing the same direction in pairs,” Habib says. “We can angle people towards each other to make conversation easier and we can work with a new type of centre console that doubles as a footrest or even a small table.
Autonomous cars are ready to ply the roads of today at a moment’s notice. The governmental support, regulations, and laws are not yet in place to cover the new cars’ as-yet-unforeseen set of challenges.
Is this the cabin of the future?
We also have the ability to relocate the air-conditioning hardware up front where the engine used to be, to free up even more space.”
The Infiniti QS is the third concept to employ the same platform. The idea of a universal platform is to develop a range of body styles that can be modified to fit around a set of core EV components. Such an approach allows the firm to create distinctive model lines efficiently.
Automakers such as Tesla, Jaguar, and Audi have offered high-riding SUVs as their debut EVs, but Habib believes there is still strong demand for a sophisticated, traditional saloon car in the future. “By designing batteries to sit as a flat-pack across the floor, the car sits higher, which has been the challenge for the QS because we were forced to create a high sedan that changed everything,” he says.
“We offset the tall look on the QS Inspiration by fitting overly large wheels to keep it in proportion. QS gives new life to the traditional three-box sports sedan, yet provides an SUV-like elevated driving position.”
The tech is ready, the laws are not.
However, Karim Habib warns against introducing drastic changes to a car once it no longer needs certain elements. EVs don’t require grilles or air intakes, doing away with them leads to a dramatic change in the vehicle’s front-end look. After all, a car carries most of its design signature on the nose.
“You don’t want to kill off the most identifiable part of a car,” says Habib. “Every aspect of the car is changing fast but our goal is to make the technology so instinctive that it’s not immediately noticeable. Everything simply has to be there and work naturally, so while we will still build driving machines for the immediate future, we also need to build luxury that will eventually turn the car into an elegant lounge space.”
Well, only when lawyers, road-safety experts, governments and engineers come together to define a unified set of rules to govern autonomy.