Although day-to-day reporting about the current state of augmented reality (AR) and autonomous vehicles can seem a bit confusing, there is an argument to be made that the two are inexorably linked. To get an idea of how that might be the case requires a step back from any individual story about where either technology currently stands. It also requires an understanding as to why those reports can be confusing. As is often the case with bleeding-edge technology, the lead-up to mainstream adoption is riddled with speculation. Depending on which reports are examined, either AR or self-driving cars could arrive in full force next week, in ten years, or not at all. Regardless of which direction those reports take, however, many automakers have current goals in the self-driving vehicles set to start from the year 2025. Timeframes for AR, in the meantime, are far less certain since its position depends largely on usefulness but are generally expected to follow the same range of dates. Despite how different the two are, both technologies could benefit substantially from advances in the other.
Probably the most intriguing reason for linking AR and autonomy in cars is tied directly to the level of trust potential customers feel they can put in a machine. Regardless of make or model, even current "dumb" cars have a wide range of problems and a good number of those are related to computing systems already in use. As a result of that and other cultural or ethical reasons, there is a lot of fear held by drivers when it comes to letting a computer take the wheel unassisted. Much of that fear could come down to uncertainty about how a given A.I. system is working and what it is "thinking" about. While it may not provide a catch-all solution, AR stands as one possible way for those fears to be addressed.
At a minimum, for example, an AR overlay across a windshield or even a side window could provide passengers with insight into the other vehicles, people, and other objects in the immediate vicinity. Color-coding or other visual cues could be used to highlight what an autonomous vehicle is currently examining, with contextual relevance, to assist in assuaging a common fear about whether or not the vehicle has somehow missed something. Moreover, AR tech could provide relevant information about what decisions the vehicle is making, with the flow of decision making played out for passengers. Beyond that, information could be provided as a convenience, as well. With AR, the vehicle could point out location or GPS navigation information to passengers, or to bring any potential vehicle problems to their attention. Any of those points could be maintained as a selling point of any given vehicle. That wouldn't be too large a step either, with consideration for how many current models now come with heads up displays built right into the windshield.
With that said, there are also practical ways self-driving vehicles can benefit the AR industry. For starters, they provide a near-perfect hardware platform that, as mentioned above, already has use-cases for the technology. To be clear, there are already plenty of AR projects available in the world, but those are mostly tied to smallish displays, such as smartphones, or enterprise-level equipment and headsets that are mostly impractical for real-world use. On the other hand, electronic systems add a huge amount of value to modern vehicles and AR systems have a lot to gain by taking advantage of the transparent real estate available in a car – where the units measured are in square-feet as opposed to square-inches. The larger amount of space could result in a better use of the possibilities provided with the ability to overlay displays onto the real world. Furthermore, the information itself could be displayed more clearly and accurately than on smaller devices.
As a result of those possibilities, advances in AR technology could feasibly create more excitement for and build trust in self-driving technologies over a shorter timescale. That has the added benefit of helping automakers to sell vehicles and could even accelerate development of both the initial systems and future systems. The automobiles themselves, meanwhile, provide a platform that provides nearly endless potential for AR at a scale that allows for real innovation and integration in useful ways. All that remains to be seen is whether or not automakers or firms developing AR decide to take advantage of the opportunity.