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Lighting the way forward: when it comes to adopting new technology, seemingly small design improvements can make a big difference. As our cars turn electric (or driverless), the function played by headlights and signalling lights is changing apace – and turning into a way to ensure the safety of all of those using our streets, whether vehicular or pedestrian.


Essay

Driverless cars might not need to rely on lights to orient them on dark roads at night – but human beings require cues, in the form of sound or light, to alert them of an oncoming vehicle’s presence. Audi is relishing the opportunity to design new lighting strategies that cater to safety needs, personalisation and more.

Some customers and drivers have a taste for novelty and will forever be early adopters. Others, however, need time to familiarise themselves with new technology before jumping on board. Building trust with a new invention is complex but sometimes it’s the smaller details and adjustments that can make all the difference.

Take an electric or driverless car, for example. Statistical studies are a poignant way of ascertaining their efficacy, but shaping the customer’s confidence often comes by way of appealing to emotions too. That’s why the role of a light designer can become fundamental to the process – and nowadays goes far beyond the remit of pure aesthetics. Instead the scope of a light designer’s work also taps into ways of improving a car’s safety.

Given that the primary function of a car’s headlights is to illuminate the road ahead for a driver, safety has always been part and parcel of their nature. But in the case of an electric car, lights are a safety feature that goes beyond protecting just drivers and passengers. Audi’s head of lighting design, César Muntada, is excited about the prospect: “Theoretically, a car’s way of communicating its presence could just be through its lights. For us it’s a huge moment: we have the challenge to create a whole new design language for the car.”

In the case of driverless cars there will be a radical transformation in the way we understand the role of lighting. While a human operator needs headlights to drive into the night, an automated vehicle doesn’t need to rely on vision in the same way in order to manoeuvre itself. In this case, the car’s lights become more than a warning sign. “The light goes beyond the known function and really communicates: it says everything. It can become a way to avoid an accident – not among autonomous cars but in a mix of pedestrians, motorcycles and cars of all technological levels, almost replicating eye contact and other similar communicative gestures that are so natural to us human beings,” says Muntada. “Therefore we need to design a type of language that is understood or understandable everywhere in the world, by young people as well as older people. And it needs to be grasped in a fraction of a second.”

In the case of the Aicon – Audi’s vision for an experimental new vehicle – this could mean that a car will be able to project light on the floor to indicate where it’s heading, or signal on its front panel if pedestrians around it should avoid crossing in front when it’s going at speed. “People will know not only what the car is doing but also what it is going to do next – it will give you information before it happens,” says Muntada. “Prediction will help you trust the car.”

A new light language must be as effective as possible but there are reasons to insist that it has aesthetically pleasing characteristics – and not just because of appearances. “As light designers we have an incredible tool that allows us to give a car its character – positive and confident,” says Muntada. “Light is the first thing that we see when we are born. It describes the world we live in. It’s extremely emotional.” Features such as moving lights that act as a bespoke welcome to each driver when they turn on their car can not only entice us but also provide that personal touch. “It’s not just about safety,” says Muntada. “It’s the human element.” In the car of the future, the two will need to remain inextricably linked.


Q&A

Professor Oliver Carsten’s research at the Institute for Transport Studies in Leeds touches on the many aspects that make our cars safe. Here, we ask him about how seemingly small design changes can transform our experiences, and what advances could improve safety in the future.

Q What small design improvements have had a big impact on vehicle safety?
A Seatbelt reminders are one example: cars that beep at drivers and passengers when they’re not wearing their seatbelts have dramatically affected crash outcomes. Daytime running light helps vehicles be seen by pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles. Swivelling headlights allow you to see better around bends, and the automatic dipping of lights can avoid the problem of glare from oncoming vehicles.

Q What could further increase vehicle safety?
A People are researching how automated vehicles will interact with and signal to pedestrians and cyclists. One could think about cars projecting a virtual zebra to signify, “Yes, you can cross in front of me.” People are also talking about the advantages of connectivity to get rid of traffic lights – but how does a pedestrian cross the road if there are no lights? Maybe it would be by vehicles indicating they’ve seen the pedestrian – and they’re willing to stop.

Q How do you make a universal light language?
A Some researchers are suggesting (or even doing trials with) small monitors on cars with a message saying, “I’m slowing down, please cross in front of me”, but there are obviously issues with the visibility and readability of text. On top of that there’s a language problem: what happens if you’re in a multi-language country such as Switzerland? There’s nothing inherently sensical about our convention to have white lights at the front, red lights at the rear and amber indicators – that’s just a language that’s grown over time and is now enshrined in standards. With automated vehicles, we have to do the same.


This is the sixth instalment in an eight-part series that considers the car of the future. From urbanists to engineers, we speak to the experts who can decode the changes in the world of mobility.


Catch up on part 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the Audi x Monocle series.

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