Paris, France - Next Two is Renault's vision of an autonomous electric vehicle for the year 2020, linking connectivity with the delegation of some driving functions to give drivers useful extra free time.
Thanks to simple but ingenious sensor technology, it can drive itself in the most heavily congested traffic up to 30km/h on main roads, and it can park go away and itself completely independently in car parks equipped for autonomous vehicles. That includes finding a parking place and manoeuvring into it.
The Next Two's open-source connectivity system is compatible with all operating systems - 2G, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Wave, Hotspot and Bluetooth - so you should be able to do anything you can do in your office, while the car takes care of the driving.
Next Two project leader Frédéric Mathis worked out that most people in Europe and the United States lose between 60 and 80 hours of a year (that's two weeks worth of work!) just sitting in traffic.
IOLstaffers suspect that figure may be even worse in Johannesburg.
That not only leaves drivers tired and stressed out - which affects their health in the long run, but also wastes more than 16 billion litres of non-renewable resources a year just in the EU and North America.
Mathis said: "Everybody is looking to save time, particularly when it comes to driving, so Next Two has been designed to help commuters optimise the way they manage their time and ensure that wasted or lost time becomes useful or enjoyable by freeing up opportunities to relax, learn stuff, have fun or work."
A TRIP INTO THE FUTURE: HOW TOMORROW'S SYSTEMS COULD WORK
It's mid-afternoon and sales representative Juliette receives a text message on her smartphone. It is her electronic mobility assistant with an alert for her: if she wants to be on time for her off-site meeting, she should leave at 4pm. The message states that the journey will take 43 minutes and that the route will include a 20-minute congested freeway section where delegated driving is allowed.
Juliette launches the Automated Valet Parking app on her smartphone, telling her Next Two to pick her up outside the building at 4pm; if she wants to, she could switch he phone's display to 'car view', using a camera next to the car's rear-view mirror for a real-time view of what the car itself is seeing as it comes to fetch her.
At 4pm, when Juliette gets to the pick-up point where her Next Two is waiting, the car identifies her as the driver, unlocks the doors and adjusts the driving position, the reach and rake of the seat and mirror alignment to her preferred settings and softly plays her favourite radio station
"WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO DRIVE?"
Juliette gets in, switches on and follows the instructions on the car's navigation screen and head-up display. When she reaches the freeway and enters a delegated driving zone, the car asks Juliette if she would like to hand over control.
She accepts, confirming it with the 'autonomous drive' command; the head-up display changes to blue to show that the vehicle is now in autonomous mode, and the seat moves to its comfort settings.
Juliette is now able to finalise preparations for her meeting; she checks her working documentation, along with the multimedia content stored on the Cloud and puts in a quick video-conference call to one of her Japanese colleagues to fine-tune a few details.
A few minutes later the navigation system warns Juliette of moving roadworks along the route, which will lengthen the journey by 45 minutes. Juliette will either have to call the customer and delay the meeting - or find a faster means of transport.
So she launches the dedicated multimodal mobility app on her smartphone, which recommends parking in a nearby car park and taking the underground. With the voice command 'buy', she reserves a space in the car park and downloads an e-ticket for the underground.
As the Next Two begins to guide her to the car park, leaving the delegated driving zone, Juliette comes out of the comfort position and takes over the driving.
When she gets to the car park she activates the Automated Valet Parking, and hops out to go and catch her train, leaving the car to park itself in the space that the car-park administrator allocated to it when Juliette's request came in.
At the end of the day, Juliette is heading back home after having picked up her daughter Samantha from school. She reaches another delegated driving zone and lets the car take over the driving again.
As they pass by an advertising hoarding, the Next Two's central display pings; it's showing an ad for a concert by her favourite singer. Juliette decides to buy two tickets, and downloads them on to her smartphone.
A few minutes later the car tells Juliette one of her girlfriends is in the vicinity. She calls her in 'hands free' mode and sees her friend's face appear on the screen. During the conversation, the friend shares a photo with her and, with a simple move of her hand, Juliette transfers the picture to her daughter's tablet computer.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Then she hangs up and relaxes, launching the 'Health & Wellbeing' app. The seat immediately begins its massage function, as the lights dim, the volume is lowered and the dispenser wafts a relaxing country scent through the cabin.
When they get home, Juliette and Samantha get out in front of the house and the Next Two drives off to park itself in the garage, directing above the inductive charging pad so that its battery is fully charged and ready to go the next morning.
None of this is science fiction; all the technology currently exists and, within the limits of the private roads around the Renault facility that are wired for autonomous driving, is already working.
AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES AND LEGISLATION
But before long stretches of freeway can be wired as delegated driving zones, the relevant legislation will have to be amended in order to allow vehicles to travel under autonomous control on public roads.
Today's international regulations, along with the national highway codes derived from them, were drawn up decades ago and never anticipated the possibility of autonomous vehicles.
Globally, there are three broadly different approaches to the automation of driving. Certain countries such as Japan see automation as a means of enabling an ageing population to keep driving for as long as possible.
Other countries - notably the Netherlands - are interested in autonomous driving because they believe it make traffic flow more smoothly, enabling all the vehicles in a given lane to travel in a homogeneous group, starting and stopping together as a group; industry specialists call it platooning, and Volvo has been researching it for some time.
A third group of countries believe that the automation of driving functions will improve road safety - since the vast majority of crashes are caused by human error. They would like to see the EU introduce compulsory driver aids - pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and so on - that could, step by step, build up to delegated driving.
The United States was the first country to authorise trials of autonomous vehicles on public roads, albeit under certain conditions and only in certain states.
The Next Two, based on the Renault Zoe, has a camera at the base of the rear-view mirror, a forward-facing sensor and an ultrasound field around the car.
Mathis noted: "The Next Two is a realistic prototype using technologies sufficiently well-developed to be built into production models in the medium-term future."
The sensor analyses how far away the vehicle ahead is and how fast it is moving. The camera detect lateral markings on the ground, to position the car in its lane.
The data received from the sensor and camera is forwarded to a supervisor which, in turn, communicates with the control units for the electric power steering, motor and brakes.
It must, above all, constantly ensure that there are no contradictions between the various instructions sent to the steering, motor and brakes, to avoid the car accelerating midway through a corner, for example, or braking suddenly due to an ill-timed detection - and that's what makes all the difference between the Next Two's system and the separate me functions, such as cruise control and lane departure control, that already exist.
The large, centrally-positioned multimedia display allows multimodal interaction and can be controlled by either touch or movements of the hand. The infrared sensor at the top the display is capable of detecting certain simple movements, such as up-down, down-up, left-right and right-left.
That allows the driver to scroll up or down lists or to trigger horizontal movements on the display to view photos or radio frequencies, for example, without having to lift a shoulder from the seat back to reach the screen with a finger.
Just moving the hand makes it possible to transfer a photo or document from the main display to nomad devices belonging to other occupants of the vehicle.
Recent improvements in sensors and their programming have significantly improved the Next Two's real-time awareness of its immediate surroundings and this helps to prevent accidents.
"In fact," said engineering director Rémi Bastien, "when the car is driving itself, it's usually more efficient and often safer than Renault's test drivers, who, like all humans, are prone to moods and distractions."
"When travelling in the Next Two's natural habitat - less than 30km/h on congested freeways - few passengers get hurt in typical fender-bender collisions.
"The exception is when a car collides with a motorcycle or scooter," he said. "But when the car is driving itself the risk of a collision is all but eliminated because all the vehicles in the car's immediate environment - including motorbikes and scooters - are detected."