Anyone connected to the automotive business will tell you that in the not-so-distant future cars will be autonomous, connected and electric. The open questions include: What shape will that future take? When will it get here?
Renault recently offered a look at where the company thinks we’ll be in 2023 when it invited journalists to test its Symbioz concept on a public highway in France. In contrast to most self-driving test cars, which tend to be production models packed with cameras and sensors as well as enough added technology to fill the trunk, the Symbioz was designed from the ground up to integrate autonomous technology and an electric drivetrain. It resembles a sleeker version of Renault’s Espace minivan.
The Symbioz was shown at the 2017 Frankfurt auto show as a static concept, paired with a modular home with which it would share energy and information. The road-ready Symbioz has Level 4 autonomy, which means the car can drive itself but still has a steering wheel and pedals. It also has an electric drivetrain that produces up to 500 kilowatts (the equivalent of 670.5 hp) and 660 newton meters of torque that can take the car from 0 to 100 kph in 6 seconds.
The interior makes it easy to do all the things we’ll have time for when our cars become chauffeurs. It has a flat floor and a nifty feature that allows the instrument panel and steering wheel to recede 12 cm into the dashboard to create more space. At the same time, the driver’s seat reclines. You’re not in a position to drive the car, even if you wanted to.
I tested the Symbioz on a cold, rainy day with a Renault engineer in the passenger seat holding a joystick to take over control if necessary. Because Renault’s permit from the French government only allows for highway use, I pushed the “drive” button and drove in a comfort-oriented manual mode (which Renault calls “classic”) until we reached the highway. On semi-rural roads, the Symbioz attracted as much attention as an alien spaceship. Pedestrians and other drivers did double- and triple-takes. Children were transfixed.
Once on the highway, I held down two buttons on the steering wheel to activate autonomous mode, took my hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals -- then tried to relax as much as I could as we passed tractor-trailers throwing off trails of spray. We approached a toll booth specially equipped with sensors and transmitters for the test, and the Symbioz smoothly slowed, centered itself in the lane and glided through (using an electronic pass).
After about 10 km, I retook control and exited then re-entered the highway in the other direction. This time, I put on a pair of virtual reality goggles programmed to offer an alternate version of … reality. I was seeing the highway and the other vehicles, but instead of gloomy Normandy, the background was bright and sunny.
At the same time, I tried to switch off my mind to focus on something other than the task of driving. That will be one of the main challenges for those of us who will make the transition to autonomous vehicles. It will be second nature for future generations.
However, the wind and rain picked up, and although the Symbioz seemed to be capably handling the conditions, the engineer suggested I take over from the car. The Symbioz has more than 30 sensors -- radar, lidar, cameras and ultrasound -- and bad weather can throw off their delicate balance. Although the Symbioz is programmed to pull safely off to the side in the event of a malfunction, I didn’t want to be in the driver’s seat when the car of the future crashed.