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Concept-Car Tech Makes Wheels Wise to Well-being

French H1st Vision prototype mixes smart biometrics with road-aware sensing

5 min read
A woman in a white jumpsuit stands in front of a silver car. The side window shows a white icon and the words "Hello Jane!"
Renault

Concept cars used to be all about looking under the hood. More and more, they’re about looking inside the microchips, and the cool features, services, and competitive edge they can provide.

The latest is the H1st Vision, a car so software-driven that its creators barely nodded to its electric power train or Renault-based chassis. Those creators are Software République, which unveiled the faceted, four-door hatchback at the Viva Technology 2023 exhibition in Paris. The French car comes on the heels of BMW’s iVision Dee, (“Dee” standing for “Digital Emotional Experience”) another concept car whose silicon wizardry took precedence over traditional BMW concerns such as horsepower and handling.

Certain old-school car fans might hop aboard the H1st, see a Renault hatchback crossed with David Hasselhoff’s K.I.T.T., and turn cranky.

“The reason automakers don’t mention power much anymore is because it matters less and less,” said Mark Wakefield, global coleader of automotive and industrial practice at consulting firm AlixPartners.

Software République describes itself as an open “European collaborative ecosystem” between six companies—Renault, Atos, Dassault Systemes, Orange, STMicroelectronics, and Thales. The consortium targets the market launch of 10 new automotive services and products, and to incubate at least 50 star-ups, in 50 different “geographies” by 2025. First up is a smart, bidirectional, Level 2 charger for the upcoming Renault 5 EV, which operates at up to a speedy 22 kilowatts. Combined with a Mobilize Powerbox charging station—a collaborative design with Software République—and its V2G (vehicle-to-grid) service, Renault drivers could save money on electricity bills by selling juice back to the grid.

H1st Vision - Health monitoring assistantSoftware République/youtube

Certain old-school car fans might hop aboard the H1st, see a Renault hatchback crossed with David Hasselhoff’s K.I.T.T., and turn cranky. The H1st might respond by analyzing the driver’s mood and health, suggesting a breathing exercise, or even speed-dialing a health professional for a videoconference. An inertial MEMS sensor in the steering wheel, with a seatbelt-mounted accelerometer, captures a driver’s heartbeat, its pattern and electrical signals. Linked to mood-analysis software, an onboard camera and microphone also monitor a driver’s voice and facial expressions, and make appropriate adjustments (temperature, lighting, screens) or suggestions via an onscreen digital avatar. If physical monitoring detects a real emergency, based on onboard algorithms and personal health history, help can be summoned. The concept can send a satellite call in cellular dead zones, geolocate the car, and flash front and rear lights to declare an emergency.

For the auto industry, “More and more value is going into software, and less and less into hardware.”

A medical phone call would also be private: A Kardome software system can identify the person speaking and where they’re sitting, and route audio via headrest speakers to their personal sound space. With an ambulance en route, passengers could enjoy two tracks especially created for the immersive sound system by renowned composer Jean-Michel Jarre. The H1st can also give itself a clean bill of health, assessing wear in key components—including the battery, tires, brakes, gearbox, and suspension—in real time. It can generate a “health certificate” on a tamper-proof, blockchained NFT containing all service and ownership records, and forecast when it needs servicing based on actual sensor readings, not simply kilometers driven.

Self-protection extends to authentication tech. Drivers or passengers create a digital profile with data and a video of them walking. That’s stored on a secure, onboard “Digital ID wallet.” Cameras on exterior mirrors recognize a user’s gait from up to 6 meters away, and faces from 3 meters. A projector on the front headrest beams a digital avatar onto a side window, who greets users and opens doors on command. Ignition is also enabled based on profile credentials. Personal, secured preferences such as seat position are dialed up, simplifying matters such as car rental, sharing, pooling, or driver’s license checks.

Hands hold a unique looking steering wheel with a digital interface that says software republique. A display on the car window shows the driver's heart rate and other biometrics.Renault

“We are putting on the table a completely new, seamless way of unlocking the car,” with no need of keys, cards, phones or fingerprints, Voineau said.

Voineau agreed that for the auto industry, “More and more value is going into software, and less and less into hardware.”

Regarding actual propulsion, project leaders did mention silicon-carbide components in its inverters, charger and DC-DC converters to lengthen battery life and shorten charging times. What looks like a conventional perforated grille is actually a checkerboard of plexiglas diamond shapes lit by colored LEDs, which can flash interactive light signals to alert pedestrians or signal an emergency stop.

Wakefield said cars like the H1st Vision show legacy automakers are taking cues from not only Tesla, but increasingly China. Those Chinese makers and buyers are besotted with the latest in gadgets, networked apps, and other tech, not traditional metrics.

“It’s not that they can’t calibrate a vehicle, but they’re not going to spend the energy and money, because customers don’t care,” Wakefield said of Chinese companies. For Chinese buyers, Wakefield said, the take rate for optional ADAS features (advanced driver assistance systems) is roughly double that of the United States. And automakers such as NIO are ahead of Western counterparts in “trying to make vehicles as much an extension of a person’s digital footprint as possible.”

Wakefield recalls working on a recent project with an unnamed automaker, “Where previously, maybe 15 software people would have been involved; now there’s 200.”

Ford, GM, and Stellantis NV are among legacy makers on a hiring spree for software engineers, hoping to chip away at Tesla’s dominance and fend off a potential incursion from Chinese brands. This wide-open market has automakers licking their chops over new revenue streams from streaming or other subscription services—and occasionally sparking outrage by planning to charge customers for things they take for granted, such as heated seats. General Motors hopes that software services will generate $20 billion to $25 billion in annual revenue by 2030. The car door has also swung open for digital giants looking to expand their own moneymaking ecosystems, including Amazon Web Services, Apple, Google, and Alibaba—even as GM looks to head them off with the controversial decision to ditch Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a potential watershed in a looming battle over who controls eyeballs and content in cars. Gartner estimates that by 2028, 70 percent of new cars will use the Android Automotive operating system (distinct from the Android Auto phone mirroring system), up from less than 1 percent in 2022.

New features aren’t all about squeezing the last dime from customers, Wakefield says, but controlling automaking costs as well, via microchips and smarter control modules than can multitask at will.

“If you have, say, a driver monitor camera for ADAS systems, you no longer need seat sensors for the air bags, and you can take all those physical switches and wiring out of seats,” he said.

The company says the H1st was developed in less than six months by a 100-person team, with added input from several promising startups. Voineau said the car’s unusual methodology, with input from a dozen companies (including startups) is another project key, versus typical top-down development by major automakers.

“We need to take the best expertise from multiple companies,” Voineau said. “And we’ve taken the time to make sure whatever we put on the table is adding value to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers].”

That potential value extends to the H1st Vision’s dual nature as both physical vehicle and a virtual twin: a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a physical object. These models can be invaluable to run simulations, study performance, and generate improvements and insights back in the physical world. For now, the H1st is being billed strictly as a concept, with no plans for production. But Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo has announced plans to introduce an ultra-affordable EV around 2027, inspired by Japan’s adorably tiny “kei cars.” Analysts suggest a model starting around US $25,000, to compete against Volkswagen’s own bargain-basement EV. That pint-size EV will likely be based on Renault’s new CMF-B electric platform that will support the upcoming Renault 5 and Alpine A290.

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