The Tata Avinya shows us how ambient computing is the future
Tata recently unveiled the Avinya concept, its vision for the future of how EVs should be like. Based on their EV-only Gen 3 platform architecture, Tata has moved on from the basics, such as range and performance, and focusing on other aspects of how we use cars in general. Wellness was one of the keywords that was sprinkled throughout the presentation, but another important innovation was how Tata is looking at the future of car interiors. There are minimal touchscreens and displays in the car, and whatever there are, are meant to display the absolute basics of information. Things that enable this include the increasing role of voice activated commands, as well as the heads up display. What Tata has essentially done is bring ambient computing into the car industry.
What is ambient computing?
Ambient computing is a concept that is being embraced by all the large tech behemoths in the world, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Meta and others. Essentially, the concept is about the change of interface, from one based on screens and direct, tangible interaction with the computer (in which the computer becomes the centre of interaction), to making computing an omnipresent entity, in which you as the user are the centre of interaction. How does this affect your cars? We need only to look at the prominence of touchscreens and displays in our cars today, where you need to go through entire sets of menus even to reach basic controls, like the HVAC system. If Tata’s vision is fully realised, your interaction with your car will soon transcend this physical boundary, and become a multi-sensory experience wherein you might not even be aware that many of your interactions are being computed at all.
Take the ‘aroma diffuser’ for example. The Avinya concept has something akin to a scented candle in the centre console, which will occasionally fill the cabin with a fresh fragrance, improving your mood and the overall ambience of the interior. This is but the start. The driver instrument cluster is a small sliver of a display that only displays the most essential information, such as speed, range and other alerts. The steering wheel has a small display that shows turn by turn navigation, and instead of a huge centre console display, there is a soundbar on the dashboard, which acts both as the voice of the car’s ambient computing system and the receiver to which you bark commands and see them carried out instantly, with not a single touch or physical movement. Although it will be jarring at first, the liberation of our senses will surely make driving and just being in the car a hugely different experience to what we are used to.
EVs and their moment in the sun
Other manufacturers who are focusing on electric vehicles are also taking advantage of the zeitgeist of change to take a different look at how we use our cars. Volkswagen, for example, has included a number of quality of life innovations in its I.D. Buzz van, which we will soon see on the road. Tesla and Rivian have changed perceptions around what electric platforms are capable of, with features focused on user comfort, like flat floors, frunks, charging other devices and appliances, and even interactions. But Tata is one of the first in India to see an electric vehicle as a ‘device’. Martin Uhlarik, the Head of Global Design at Tata, mentioned to us, “Does it remind you of sitting in your living room? At the same time, your life doesn't stop just because you're in this vehicle. You have to seamlessly connect with your life or it's a sanctuary as well.” The idea of the car as a living room has wide-ranging ramifications. It means that an electric vehicle is now being seen as a complement to our way of life, not a crutch that only ‘takes us from A to B’. Soon, a Tata or a Mahindra might become a space that we actually want to be in, not because we want to go for a drive, but because the time we spend in it is made better.
The freedom of not driving
We have so far not even touched upon the elephant in the room, the giant big autonomous elephant. So far, we have reached level three (Conditional Driving Automation) autonomous capabilities in cars like Mercedes and Tesla, but their performance varies depending on road conditions We are still not at the point where in a level five autonomous vehicle you could realistically let the car drive itself, or indeed where there is no option to drive it yourself. The implications of this are enormous, and will make us question the concept of mobility itself. With a self-driving car, your vehicle will become a room by itself, freeing up the space within to be whatever you want it to be. It could be an office, a living room or even a bedroom. Volkswagen for instance has made efforts towards this since the beginning of the electric era. The Sedric concept from 2017 envisaged an interior space as a canvas for your creativity, with the manufacturer only your provider. Tata is looking to enter the bridge space, between an analogue car to which you give your entire attention, and a mobility device which acts as a tool for your convenience. Autonomous driving can be a game-changer, but we are still years away from true self-driving cars. In the meanwhile, thinking about how we change our interactions with the car, with a view towards the freedom such self-driving cars can bring, is a good and indeed, necessary beginning.
The shift in interface is also a generational shift. As Martin told us, “If I think about my generation, I was a button interface generation. My son is 20, and he is a touchscreen generation. My daughter is 13, so there's only a seven year gap, but she uses Siri on everything. She uses voice.” This is a prescient statement, and it speaks volumes that Tata, a homegrown Indian brand, is already thinking about such massive changes in global culture and incorporating them in their cars. The next generation of electric vehicles, and indeed cars in general, are not going to feel like appliances. They will not let us believe that there are intrusive computers trying to make us use them. Soon, we will not even know if there are computers around us. It will only mean that we will get more out of ourselves than we ever did before.