Video games could be the future of cars


When he’s not designing the digital future of car dashboards, Mike Hichme is probably at his home-built racing sim.

Hichme has had a three-decade career at General Motors and now oversees the entire “digital cockpit” experience, including the development of software for in-car displays and the ways drivers and passengers interact with touch screens. He’s been an obsessive gamer even longer, growing up in the age of arcade machines and the Atari 2600 before graduating to modern racing sims like iRacing and Assetto Corsa.

Those two things, Hichme said, have a lot more in common than you might think.

“Games are like a mix of the virtual and the physical, just like the vehicle, especially when you have all these different screens and features,” Hichme told The Washington Post. “If you get into a vehicle where you have steering wheel controls that operate a menu on the screen in front of you, you can relate a lot of that to a game you’ve seen somewhere.”

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By now, several generations of automotive engineers, designers, product planners, programmers, and executives have grown up as gamers. Many have remained that way as they grew into adulthood.

They are considering gaming to help optimize the user experience as cars become more complicated, looking for ways to integrate augmented and virtual reality into driving, and supporting technology developed by the gaming industry to improve driver performance. hardware and software. In the process, they’re responding to what young drivers might want from cars in the future.

“Everyone on our team brings something from their personal life, whether it’s gaming or something else that has influenced them,” said Madalyn Eudy, creative designer of GM’s Ultifi software platform. Eudy describes herself as a daily gamer and counts games like Forza, Mass Effect, “Cyberpunk 2077” and Ace Combat as influences on her work.

“How do certain HUDs work? [heads-up displays] Look, and how do they feel when you play? she said. “Even if it’s an old game, I can take inspiration from how it was made and incorporate it into my work.”

Eudy and Hichme are far from alone. The influence of video games was seen throughout the CES 2023 tech industry trade show in January. There, BMW unveiled the i Vision Dee Concept, a minimalist electric sedan that uses full-windshield augmented reality displays and invites drivers to create a virtual avatar of themselves. Sony announced that it will enter the automotive market in partnership with Honda, with an EV powered by in-car entertainment from its vast catalog of games and movies. Nvidia announced that it will add cloud-based gaming services to future cars from China’s Hyundai, Polestar and BYD, many of which already use its Nvidia Drive software suite for automated driving assistance.

In-car gaming also looks set to have a moment soon, especially as occupants need entertainment while charging their electric vehicles. Cadillac demonstrated exactly that at CES, partnering with Microsoft to create a racing game in a Lyriq EV car, played using the car’s steering wheel and pedals. Tesla beat out Cadillac with more than just a demo: In December, the electric carmaker rolled out Steam games on the Model S and Model X, allowing occupants to play thousands of titles on the center screen while parked using a Bluetooth controller. (Tesla has been a leader in this field for a while, introducing the Tesla Arcade game list to its cars in 2019.)

“There is a generation emerging that is much more comfortable with technology in general in all facets of life,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at car-buying website Edmunds. “And I think that’s really going to show up in the automotive space.”

Video games and cars have intersected for a long time. Driving and racing games are as old as the games themselves, with Atari’s “Space Race” and “Wipeout” on the Magnavox Odyssey in the 1970s, marking the genre’s earliest days. Today, series like Forza, Gran Turismo and Mario Kart are world powers. Video games are inspiring real world race car drivers, and virtual racing is becoming a pathway to real world racing. (A new live-action Gran Turismo movie directed by “District 9″‘s Neill Blomkamp will tell this story.) And auto companies even sometimes market new cars within those games.

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Many modern cars already They have characteristics almost similar to those of a video game. Many performance-focused cars, from Hyundai to Porsche and beyond, have for years featured digital displays measuring G-forces, lap timers, and horsepower output gauges. They feel straight out of Forza in customizable ways that allow the driver to gauge performance.

Or take the electric Mercedes-Benz EQS, which features an optional 56-inch “Hyperscreen”: three screens spread across the entire dash, including one for the passenger. (And yes, you now play Tetris and Sudoku as part of a subscription charge.) Or the upcoming Cadillac Celestiq EV, which has another pillar-to-pillar extra-large screen setup and very few traditional buttons and switches. How does a driver operate the key functions there, especially at highway speeds?

Intuition is key, and that’s where many lessons from game design come in, said Peter Hoang, who was most recently a product designer at self-driving technology company Argo AI. Hoang, who describes himself as a lifelong gamer and now works for an AI technology company in the defense space, said the games are designed to learn quickly and play with your eyes on the screen, not in the controller. That has lessons on how to design car features that don’t distract the driver, or how to build a semi-autonomous driver assistance system that ensures a human being continues to pay attention behind the wheel.

“As a designer now, you want to focus on human-centered design, where you’re designing for the user, rather than what you think the user should be doing,” Hoang said. “I’ll talk to engineers who aren’t UX experts, but even they will reference gaming in terms of how someone should interact with the product.”

This applies to both the visual design and the interactive experience, GM’s Hichme said.

“Historically, I would send my lead graphic designer to E3,” he said, referring to the gaming industry’s biggest annual convention. “They would come back with the latest trends and that would influence what we would end up seeing on our screens for years to come.”

For example, Hichme said, some of the newer GM cars like the Cadillac Lyriq, GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado contain a menu screen with a model of the vehicle that can be rotated in either direction. Users can click on different areas to view diagnostic details such as tire pressure. This was directly inspired by the “Garage” menu in Forza and other racing games, she said.

High-tech tools developed for games have carried over into the automotive world, just as they have with movies and TV shows; Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is now used in a variety of car-related applications, from design tools to car software. Epic Games is also behind “Fortnite,” which has grown to include strong driving in the game and brought real-world cars to the popular video game.

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Heiko Wenczel, Epic Games’ Director of Automotive and HMI for Unreal Engine, said in an email that his company’s tools convert data into high-fidelity 3D and interactive images, making them increasingly useful in game design. cars, sales and even driving.

For example, he said Volvo, Ford, GM and Rivian use Unreal Engine for visualizations that run in real time on drivers’ screens, “making it easier for drivers to understand and contextualize important information, leading to a more seamless experience.” safer and more enjoyable driving. .”

“I would say there is a technology transfer that has been going on for years, where auto companies are taking advantage of the potential to adopt technology from the gaming industry,” Wenczel said. “We are still in the early stages of the adoption of game creation tools by the automotive industry and we are excited to see where this will go in the coming years.”

Analysts and industry executives alike say the cars of tomorrow will be less defined by traditional specs like power and mechanical features and more by the overall user experience. This transition will coincide with the arrival of millennials and members of Generation Z to dominate the car buying market. These buyers not only have a greater interest in EVs than their ancestors, but are also more comfortable with digital subscription features, something automakers are relying on as future EVs present more options. sophisticated and require less maintenance in the long run. .

As more and more young gamers become drivers, many in the auto industry say they expect this convergence between gaming technology and cars to grow. Hichme said that car owners are already starting to see this, comparing over-the-air software updates in vehicles to the same type of updates that regularly come to games now. While those features may seem baffling to many car owners now, they won’t be to those who grew up on games like “Fortnite.”

And while that happens, game technology companies like Epic Games also plan to be there to meet the moment, Wenczel said.

“As cars become more autonomous in the future, the car will transform into a next-generation destination for social connectivity and entertainment, not only for the occupants but also for their network of friends,” he said.

Patrick George is a New York-based reporter and editor. The former editor-in-chief of Jalopnik and editorial director of The Drive, he covers the future of transportation.