Volvo Teases with Built-In Skype, But True In-Car Video Chatting Waits on Driverless Cars

Automakers are experimenting with in-car video chatting.

What do you get when you cross one of the world’s foremost car manufacturers with the world’s most famous video calling platform?

A little bit disappointed.

When Volvo prompted headlines like “Volvo to Install Skype to Its Cars” and “Volvo’s High-End Cars Will Come with Skype Built-In” in late December, the average response from the average reader would be,  “How did they make video calling safe enough to use while driving?”

But, of course, Volvo has done nothing of the sort. The German giant has instead promised to add audio-only conference calling to its 90 series cars, and is using Microsoft’s Skype for Business interface and network.

It’s a sleeker, potentially safer form of carrying on a conversation in the car, but to get the whole impact of video conferencing on the roads of the future we’re still left waiting on the driverless car.

Skype Calling in Cars

That’s because, of course, it is still way too dangerous to have drivers switching their attention between the road and a video call, no matter how sophisticated, well-positioned, or clear the video in question can be displayed.

The average human is just not good enough at crunching all that stimuli into a cohesive understanding of what’s going on around them–at least, not when piloting a two-ton vehicle at 60 mph in traffic.

Even the trendy heads-up display (HUD) systems that project visual information onto a driver’s windscreen are considered by some researchers to be too dangerous for use while driving.

So Volvo has compromised and introduced touch screen audio calling that borrows the simplified interface of Microsoft’s recently unveiled Skype Room Systems. With it, drivers can initiate and enter an audio conference via a touch screen, and can use voice commands to record notes or schedule follow-up calls.

But it’s certainly not video calling. Actually, it’s not particularly close.

Video Calling With the Driverless Car

So if you want to be more productive on the road and make use of video conferencing, you’re stuck waiting on the driverless car to free up your eyes and attention. Smartphone use while driving is involved in a quarter of U.S. road accidents, so don’t even think about using your video calling apps.

The good news is, the wait appears to be almost over, with self-driving cars from a number of manufacturers already patrolling our streets.

Google’s smart cars have driven 2.3 million miles already, Tesla has 70,000 autopilot-enabled cars currently on the road, driverless Ubers are picking up passengers in Pittsburgh, and Europeans companies Audi and Mercedes-Benz are in advanced testing.

Mercedes hopes to have a fully automated car on offer by 2020, and its marketing around the F 015 hints at how the traditional car interior can be overhauled to expand the possibilities of on-road video calling.

The internal panels of the F 015 are reimagined as flowing, wrap-around video screens, with touch-screen sensitivity that would make a great canvas upon which to project a group video call. That kind of reinvention of what a car could be is what holds the greatest promise for a video calling revolution on wheels.

Is It a Car? Is It an Office? No, It’s Whole New Living Space

If there is no driver, there’s no distinction between driver and passenger. Actually, there’s no distinction between front seat and back seat because there’s no greater need to face the windshield in a driverless car than there is to face the front of a train.

What’s more, if there are no exposed driving controls, such as a steering wheel, brakes, indicators, and so on, the interior of a car can be reconfigured completely into any seating arrangement that still allows seatbelts. As an aside, many jurisdictions mandate a car must have a steering wheel and pedals to be allowed on the road, demonstrating how much must be achieved outside the smart car before society at large can embrace the technology.

But in our hypothetical smart car, you could turn the interior into a round table meeting room, a huddle space for 2,3, or 4 people to conduct a remote group video call just as they would in the office.

There’s no driver to distract anymore, so cameras, microphones, and screens can be setup around the car, even across the windshield and windows if need be. And there would be space to accommodate office-standard sized screens that would make video calling on a smartphone redundant.

Providing the cellular service holds up, you’d get quality internet connectivity to enable HD visuals and low latency performance throughout a journey.

Why Fly When You Can Work Your Way There?

A setup like this would mean employees on the move would be able to stay connected and active on portable, or perhaps built-in devices, while they make the journey from home to office, office to conference, conference to partner’s office, and so on. It might make long commutes more doable, enabling workers to get started on their work for the day while traveling, and cutting down on the time required in the actual office.

It might even make road travel preferable to air travel over shorter distances, as there’s no need to be disconnected while navigating airport security or boarding, and no need to switch to flight mode during take-off and landing.

And you’re not making any demands on the passengers to pay attention to the road, so they can stay focused on work, or even just take a nap if there’s been a little too much focus on work.

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