When he’s not designing the digital future of car dashboards, Mike Hichme is probably in his home-built racing simulator.
Those two things, Hichme said, have a lot more in common than you might think.
“Gaming is like a blend of the virtual and the physical, and so is the vehicle, especially when you have all of these different displays and features,” Hichme told The Washington Post. “If you get into a vehicle where you have steering wheel controls that operate a menu on the display in front of you, a lot of that you can relate to a game you've seen somewhere.”
By now, several generations of automotive engineers, designers, product planners, programmers and executives have grown up as gamers. Many have stayed that way as they grew into adulthood.
They’re looking at gaming to help streamline the user experience as cars grow more complicated, seeking ways to integrate augmented and virtual reality into driving, and cribbing tech developed by the gaming industry to improve hardware and software performance. In the process, they’re responding to what young drivers might want from cars in the future.
“Everyone on our team brings something from their personal life, whether it’s gaming or something else that’s influenced them,” said Madalyn Eudy, a creative designer with GM’s Ultifi software platform. Eudy describes herself as a daily gamer and counts games like Forza, Mass Effect, “Cyberpunk 2077” and Ace Combat as influences in her work.
“How do certain HUDs [heads-up displays] look, and how do they feel when you play?” she said. “Even if it’s an older game, I can take inspiration from how it was done and bring it into my work.”
Eudy and Hichme are far from alone. Video games’ influence was seen all over the tech industry tradeshow CES in January. There, BMW debuted the i Vision Dee concept car, a minimalist electric sedan that uses augmented reality displays across the entire windshield and invites drivers to create a virtual avatar of themselves. Sony announced that it will enter the automotive market in partnership with Honda, with an EV backed by in-car entertainment from its vast catalogue of games and movies. Nvidia announced that it will add cloud-based gaming services to future cars from Hyundai, Polestar and China’s BYD — many of which already use its Nvidia Drive software suite for automated driving assistance.
In-car gaming itself also seems poised to have a moment soon, especially as occupants need entertainment while charging their electric vehicles. Cadillac demonstrated exactly that at CES, partnering with Microsoft to make an in-car racing game in a Lyriq EV, played using the wheel and pedals of the car. Tesla beat Cadillac to the punch with more than just a demo: In December, the electric automaker rolled out Steam gaming to the Model S and Model X, allowing occupants to play thousands of titles on the central screen while parked using a Bluetooth controller. (Tesla has been a leader in this field for a while, introducing the Tesla Arcade slate of games in its cars in 2019.)
Steam is here—bringing thousands of games to new Model S & X vehicles 🎮 pic.twitter.com/PDzjtefv7A— Tesla (@Tesla) December 13, 2022
“You do have a generation that is coming up that is a lot more comfortable with technology in general in all facets of life,” said Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights at car-buying website Edmunds. “And I think that that is going to really show itself in the auto space.”
Video games and cars have long intersected with one another. Driving and racing games are as old as gaming itself, with Atari’s “Space Race” and “Wipeout” on the Magnavox Odyssey in the 1970s marking the earliest days of the genre. Today, series like Forza, Gran Turismo and Mario Kart are global powerhouses. Video games are inspiring real-world racecar drivers, and virtual races are becoming a pathway to real-world careers. (A new live-action Gran Turismo film directed by “District 9’s” Neill Blomkamp will tell this story.) And car companies even sometimes market new cars within those games.
Many modern cars already boast almost video-game-like features. Many performance-focused cars, from Hyundai all the way up to Porsche and beyond, have for years featured digital displays that measure g-forces, lap timers and horsepower output gauges. They feel lifted straight out of Forza in the customizable ways they allow a driver to measure performance.
Or take the electric Mercedes-Benz EQS, which features an optional 56-inch “Hyperscreen:” three displays spread across the entire dashboard, including one for the passenger. (And yes, it now plays Tetris and Sudoku as part of a subscription charge.) Or the upcoming Cadillac Celestiq EV, which has another extra-large pillar-to-pillar screen setup and very few traditional buttons and switches. How does a driver operate key functions there, especially at highway speeds?
Intuitiveness is key, and that’s where many lessons from game design come in, said Peter Hoang, who was recently a product designer at the self-driving technology company Argo AI. Hoang, who describes himself as a lifelong gamer and now works for an AI tech company in the defense space, said games are designed to be learned quickly and played with your eyes on the screen, not the controller. That has lessons for how to design car features that won’t distract a driver, or how to build a semiautonomous driver-assistance system that makes sure a human being is still paying attention behind the wheel.
“As a designer now, you want to focus on human-centered design, where you're designing for the user, as opposed to what you think the user should be doing,” Hoang said. “I'll talk to engineers who aren't UX experts, but even they'll reference video games in terms of how someone should interact with the product.”
This applies to visual design as well as the interactive experience, GM’s Hichme said.
“Historically, I would send my lead graphic designer to E3,” he said, referencing the gaming industry’s biggest yearly convention. “They would come back with the latest trends and those would influence what you’d end up seeing on our displays for years to come.”
For example, Hichme said, some of the newer GM cars like the Cadillac Lyriq, GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado contain a menu screen with a model of the vehicle that can be spun in any direction. Users can click different areas on it to see diagnostic details like tire pressures. This was directly inspired by the “Garage” menu of Forza and other racing games, he said.
The high-tech tools developed for gaming have crossed over into the automotive world, just as they have for movies and TV shows; Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is now used in a variety of car-related applications from design tools to in-car software. Epic Games is also behind “Fortnite,” which has grown to include robust in-game driving and has brought real-world cars into the massively popular video game.
Heiko Wenczel, Epic Games’ Director of Automotive and HMI for Unreal Engine, said in an email that his company’s tools turn data into high-fidelity 3D and interactive visuals, making them increasingly useful in car design, sales and even driving.
For example, he said Volvo, Ford, GM and Rivian all use Unreal Engine for visualizations that run in real-time on driver displays, “making it easier for drivers to comprehend and contextualize important information, leading to a safer, more enjoyable driver experience.”
“I’d say there’s a technology transfer that’s been underway for years, where automotive companies are harnessing the potential for adopting technology from the games industry,” Wenczel said. “We’re still early in the automotive industry’s adoption of game creation tools and we’re excited to see where this will go in the years to come.”
Industry analysts and executives alike say the cars of tomorrow will be less defined by traditional specs like horsepower and mechanical features and more by the overall user experience. This transition will coincide with millennials and members of Generation Z further coming to dominate the car-buying market. These buyers not only have a greater interest in EVs than their forebears, but they’re also more comfortable with digital subscription features — something automakers are banking on as the EVs of the future roll out more sophisticated options and require less maintenance in the long run.
As more and more young gamers become drivers, many in the car industry say they expect this convergence between gaming tech and cars to grow. Hichme said car owners are already starting to see this, likening over-the-air software updates in vehicles to the same kinds of updates that regularly come to games now. While those features may seem baffling to many car owners now, they won’t for those raised on games like “Fortnite.”
And as that happens, gaming technology companies like Epic Games plan on being there to meet the moment as well, Wenczel said.
“As cars become more autonomous in the future, the automobile will transform into a next-gen destination of social connectivity and entertainment — not only for occupants but also their network of friends,” he said.
Patrick George is a reporter and editor based in New York. The former editor in chief of Jalopnik and editorial director of the Drive, he covers the future of transportation.