Image courtesy of Volvo Cars

The path to zero collisions: behind Volvo Cars’ new electric HMI program

June 1, 2022
There are about six million car accidents in the US every year. But what if we could bring that number down a lot, even to zero? At Volvo Cars, that’s the aim: zero collisions. But getting there means thinking about things holistically—from automation to the dash.

Recently, Volvo Cars has been investing in the latter, building an HMI (Human-Machine Interface) for its new range of fully electric cars that is geared to give drivers better information about what’s going around them, so they can not only continue to feel safe on the road, but make smarter decisions while they’re there.
 

A track record for safety

Safety is nothing new to Volvo Cars; in fact, it has famously been guiding the company’s designs since 1927. Volvo Cars was the first company to introduce side airbags as standard equipment, and even invented the modern three-point safety belt—which was then made available to other car manufacturers for free.

Today, a new and improved HMI will begin supporting wider safety features that help drivers understand a bit more about what’s going around them. “HMI is the interaction a person has with technology: in this case, a car,” begins Head of UX at Volvo Cars, Thomas Stovicek. “For a long time that’s been the steering wheel, brake, and gas pedals.”
Image courtesy of Volvo Cars
For the company’s upcoming new range of fully electric vehicles, Volvo Cars engineers have been experimenting with external sensors to do everything from seeing blind spots to autonomous driving. “We’re also exploring technologies like LiDAR that help you see much further so the car can anticipate what’s happening,” Stovicek adds. Together, these solutions could save plenty of lives, and an important part of this is keeping the driver informed. One overly-complex diagram could be enough to distract a driver on the road, and potentially even lead to more accidents.

Part of the solution, according to Stovicek, was Unreal Engine. “We decided to go with Unreal Engine because we needed a technology that could really help us create high-fidelity visualizations in real-time. We have a lot of information coming in for the user and we need to present that in a way that’s contextualized and helps the user understand. Real-world representations are easier to understand and this technology helps us render and present things [realistically] in that way, and layer a lot of information together.”

Timing is everything

As well as its ability to create informative visuals, Unreal Engine’s real-time capabilities are also key to enhancing safety for the Volvo Cars team. “The responsiveness of these systems is very important,” says Stovicek, who adds that it’s important to always remember that everyone has different reaction times. “The quicker the system can give the user the information, the quicker they can respond—whether it’s to address another car coming in from the side or something else in the road. This helps create a safer experience and that ultimately is our goal.”
Image courtesy of Volvo Cars
In order to optimize the HMI even further, Volvo Cars’ user experience team is now also leveraging Unreal Insights. This helps both engineers and designers preview how the HMI looks both on their computers and within vehicle prototypes, allowing them to identify bottlenecks and ensure a smooth, responsive user experience before the designs carry forward to the production models. “In the past, it used to be that the design team would develop some concepts, and send them over to the development team,” Stovicek remembers. “It would be a long time before we could actually see those ideas in real life to evaluate them.”
Image courtesy of Volvo Cars
Thanks to Unreal Engine, graphics can now be updated in hours, rather than months. With the help of Blueprints, designers and engineers can work more closely together to refine concepts: There’s no need to learn C++ in order to connect the data to the resulting graphics, so changes can be made without waiting for another team to respond.

“We no longer have to develop the HMI functionality in a time-consuming iterative process,” confirms Stovicek. “We can learn, we can test, we can test some more in context, and even prototype with these tools, to really get our speed of development up and ultimately create better products overall.”
Image courtesy of Volvo Cars

Welcome to the future of driving 

As Volvo Cars gears up to become a fully-electric brand by 2030, the HMI experiences the company is designing are set to change the way we drive—and design cars—for good. “There’s the opportunity to be very creative when it comes to HMI,” says Stovicek of a system that can be refreshed anytime with over-the-air updates that will continue to make the HMI experience even more powerful.

“What our team does best is create a safe user experience for the driver. By using Unreal Engine in our next-generation electric vehicles, we know that the quality of the visuals will not only create the kind of experience we aim for, but also make it responsive and fast. I think we’re going to see a lot of creativity over the next few years as more manufacturers explore what’s possible with this setup, and I’m really excited to be part of that and see what new things we’ll create in this new era.”

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