First of all, start with the potential information and sensory overload that you’re going to have as you maneuver your BMW MINI through traffic. On your head-up display in the glasses, you’re potentially going to see the names of businesses overlaid on your view of the road (if essential for navigation), as well as navigation details of when you need to make a turn. You’ll also see indications for open parking spots when you are within the last mile of your destination. And, since the augmented vision glasses can be synced with your smartphone, there’s also the option to hear incoming text messages read to you as you’re driving.
Those are just a lot of distractions – and distractions are one of the leading causes of auto mishaps on the road, especially for young drivers.
Second, just strapping on a pair of throwback aviator glasses doesn’t make you a better driver, even if there are additional cameras attached to the vehicle that are linked with those glasses. If anything, being lulled into the feeling that technology has everything under control will just encourage young millennials (the target demo) to treat driving as a video game experience.
The real risk is that human lives – both in the cars next to you and the pedestrians in the road –will turn into digital abstractions rather than flesh-and-blood-reality. In the product video for the glasses, MINI shows how the new “X-Ray View” technology can help drivers “see through” parts of the car to avoid these potential targets. In one example, the MINI driver sees a skateboarder whizzing by the passenger side of his vehicle. At that point, however, most older drivers would probably be ripping off their goggles and braking in a panic rather than experimenting with X-ray powers.
Thirdly, your car is not actually communicating with other cars on the road – you’re still in charge of your vehicle once you put on those MINI augmented vision goggles. Yes, they can help you see that there’s an approaching car in your blind spot, or a parking space nearby – but you’re still responsible for navigating your car into that tight parking space or avoiding that car in your blind spot.
Now contrast MINI Augmented Vision with other elements of BMW’s new driverless technology, which enables a car to respond in real-time to changes on the road, including slick spots on a turn. In a demo video from CES 2015, BMW shows how it’s almost impossible to crash a driverless self-parking car, due to all the sensors onboard.
This seems like a much more reasonable approach for improving driver safety. Instead of just telling you that there’s an obstacle in your rear-view mirror, this technology physically stops the car for you. Moreover, you could use your smartphone or smartwatch – not to read text messages as you drive but to physically park the car in a tight parking space.
If nothing else, a comparison between the MINI Augmented Vision goggles and BMW’s other driverless technologies highlights that there are two types of technologies – those that try to help humans catch up with the amazing processing capabilities of machines, and those that try to help machines catch up with the amazing processing capabilities of humans.
That raises the obvious question: Are we headed for a future where humans get better and better at driving cars with the help of machines? Or are we headed for a future where machines get better and better at driving cars with the help of humans? If you consider R&D funding to be a finite resources for auto companies, this sets up a number of interesting issues for innovators to consider, at least implicitly, about the types of projects and goals they should be prioritizing.
The one interesting aspect of MINI Augmented Vision, though, is how these goggles are seen as a lifestyle accessory that bridges the gap between time in the car and time out of the car. It’s not just that you strap on a cool pair of aviator glasses only when you’re behind the wheel. They’re intended as a broader lifestyle accessory, and can be worn as soon as you wake up in the morning or as you’re headed to a destination after parking your car.
“MINI Augmented Vision gives an insight into how intelligent connectivity between a MINI car and eyewear into which relevant content is projected might work in the future,” according to Dr. Jörg Preißinger, project manager MINI Augmented Vision, BMW Group research and technology. It’s what MINI refers to as the “First Mile/Last Mile” functionality – what you do in the first mile before you get to your car, and what you do in the last mile after you park your car. In the product demo videos, wearing the AR goggles means the driver has time to check out menus of restaurants, see details about upcoming music festivals and follow navigation arrows on the ground through twisting and winding urban streets.
But, if anything, it’s just another reminder that many of the innovations originally intended for humans could one day be used by machines much more intelligently. Any element of that information overload – street names, business names, event details, and availability of open parking spaces – could just be processed much more efficiently by machines.
At the end of the day, it’s just too easy to be skeptical about a pair of AR glasses for driving, even if they’re from a cool lifestyle brand such as MINI. Maybe that’s because it’s becoming increasingly clear that in the future, we won’t drive cars — cars will drive us.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the information that a driver will see using the new glasses. Drivers will not see speeds of other vehicles on the road and will not see names of streets overlaid on their views.