I'm driving the multimillion-dollar Symbioz EV concept on a highway in France when Renault-Nissan Senior VP Ogi Redzik hands me an Oculus VR headset. "Put it on. Do you see an image yet?" he asks me. "Not yet. Ahh, yes, now I see it," I reply nervously.
A minute ago I was on a real road, but now I'm rolling down a fake forested highway in a simulation created by Ubisoft. Meanwhile, Renault's Level 4 autonomous system has taken the piloting chores (with a professional, joystick-equipped driver backing it up in the passenger seat).
It's a bizarre experience, but I don't feel sick, because the Symbioz is transmitting real road motion to the headset. That data is then subtly adjusting the virtual image to be in sync with the real-life car movements. I even see simulated versions of the cars and trucks on the road fed in by LiDAR and other sensors. After a few minutes, the headset shows a dramatic eclipse, and the faux Symbioz leaves the road and soars over a canopy of trees.
All of this is part of the "mind off" driving experience that Renault is exploring with the Symbioz. With fully autonomous vehicles just around the corner, the company is trying to imagine how we can spend our free time once we surrender the wheel to robots. VR may not be your personal entertainment choice, but it exhibits that idea in a vivid way.
"This demo really shows you that when your mind is off, it's really off," Redzik told me. "If we give people back time, I don't think we should be judging what they are going to use this time for, whether it's gaming, VR or office work."
Renault sees future cars as more than just A-to-B transportation. As showcased during my tour of the concept, the Symbioz can drive into its own purpose-built house with a matching interior, sit on a special charging pad and backup your solar panels like a rolling PowerWall. With HiFi and video systems (supplied by Devialet and LG, respectively), it could even become a mini-room in your home for work or entertainment. Even the exterior of the Symbioz, dreamed up by Renault's Senior Design VP Laurens van den Acker, is about the space inside. "The lines of the Symbioz demo car were designed to showcase the interior's innovations," said Patrick Lecharpy, Renault-Nissan's head of advanced design.
The body, built with carbon-fiber panels and a metal chassis, has an extreme cab-forward design to maximize space and is low, long and very wide. The styling is an acquired taste, thanks to the weird mix of a low, curvy front end, and high, windowless, squared-off back.
There is no tacked-on sensor array like you've seen on Waymo and other self-driving rigs. LiDAR units are hidden in the front headlight covers and rear bumper. Radar and ultrasonic sensors are placed inside the body, and a front camera is fitted at the top of the windshield. There's also a rear camera hidden in the Renault logo, and side cameras cached in the door handles.
Renault bravely invited me to drive its priceless EV, even though the weather in Normandy was, to use a local term, la merde. I was lucky enough to be on the first test flight; later in the day, only Renault's drivers could take the wheel because of rain, sleet and hail conditions. We didn't have to worry about getting wet or cold, though, as the Symbioz came to pick me up from inside its special little house. Once we were all seated, I could start to appreciate the interior design that accommodates all the embedded tech.
As Lecharpy noted, inside is where the Symbioz really shines, with a futuristic but not too futuristic cabin befitting a road-going concept car. The driver and passengers get individual seats for safety and comfort. (The Symbioz mock-up shown in Frankfurt had front seats that could swivel into an Orient Express face-to-face seating configuration like Mercedes' limited F 015 concept, but that was considered too dangerous for a car traveling at freeway speeds.)
To maximize space and emphasize the "living room" idea, there is no center console or rear windshield. Nor are there physical mirrors, so rear-visibility is handled by a well-designed camera and display system.
LG created the L-shaped OLED front console display and split infotainment touchscreen. It also developed the excellent heads-up display (HUD). Depending on the drive mode, the touchscreens change color to match the interior lighting.
Even when the powerful sound system is cranked inside, folks outside the car can barely hear a thing. That's because for its first car audio project, French HiFi company Devialet carefully considered the harmonics of the car's body to reduce vibrations. Once I was acclimated, engineers detailed the route and explained how to use the three drive modes. During regular "classic" manual driving, the interior lighting is blue, and for "dynamic" mode, lights on the doors and OLED dash turn red. When you activate the auto drive (AD) setting by pushing two steering wheel buttons at once, everything becomes a champagne gold. The dashboard also displays different animations for each mode -- all meant to give you instant visual cues about what the car is doing.
If things went south during the auto-drive mode, I was instructed to do nothing and let the specially-trained driver in the front right seat, equipped with joystick controls, take over. He would then pass me back the controls in manual mode. (All of this was legal and approved by French authorities.)
The Symbioz rotated 180 degrees on its platform, the glass door opened, and I cautiously set off. After a few minutes getting used to its heft and width, I felt comfortable -- or at least, as comfortable as possible while driving a multimillion-dollar, one-of-a-kind prototype. The EV is easy to maneuver thanks to a four-wheel-steering system -- despite the 4.92-meter length (16.1 feet), it can turn on a dime.
Once on the highway, the first step was to test "dynamic" manual driving. The Symbioz has a 72 kWh battery and produces 360 kW (483 horsepower), a bit less in both categories than Tesla's P75D Model S. In standard mode power is limited to 160 kW, but the EV still accelerated quickly and could easily maintain freeway speeds. The handling and ride were smooth, but not exactly sporty.
I found the LG's OLED screens easy to read, even in direct sunlight. The GPS navigation system by TomTom worked well and displayed points of interest, charging stations, and other info. LG's heads-up display was integrated seamlessly into the dash and floated ahead of the windshield in a natural, non-distracting way. It displayed essential information like the speed limit, current speed and turn-by-turn directions.
Driving conditions were grim, alternating minute-by-minute between sunshine, rain, sleet and hail. Nevertheless, once established in the center of my freeway lane at 130km/h (80MPH), I pushed the two steering-wheel buttons with my thumbs to activate the auto-driving mode. This, I must add, was my first time using a fully-automatic self-driving vehicle (I tested Audi's 2019 Level 3 Audi A8, but the Level 3 self-driving was disabled).
At first, I was stuck behind a truck, so the Symbioz moved to overtake it. Unfortunately, the semi was spraying a flood of water and, unbeknownst to us, the right-hand headlight cover had fogged up, foiling the LiDAR unit inside.
The AD subsequently disengaged with a bit of drama as the EV swerved from side to side. As instructed (and this was hard), I resisted touching the wheel, and the safety driver sat to my right quickly took over. After establishing control, he handed me back the wheel, and I quickly switched back to AD mode. This time, it kept things steady for a much longer period. Two GoPro cameras recorded all of these activities, as shown in the video above.
With no need to guide the car, I slipped on the Oculus VR headset and followed Redzik's instructions. Soon enough, I was immersed in Ubisoft's simulation, rolling down a forested road and seeing a virtual version of the Symbioz cockpit and traffic around me. Next, there was a virtual eclipse, and the scene transformed into a nighttime cityscape. Finally, the virtual EV took flight, soaring over a dreamy, fog-filled forest.
Though mildly worried, I was completely comfortable using the headset during the three-minute demo. VR is notorious for producing motion sickness even if you're sitting still, but Ubisoft combines TomTom's GPS road maps and the Symbioz's acceleration data, feeding it all into the simulation. "The acceleration, the speed, the localization in the lanes, the lateral acceleration, everything is taken into account by the VR experience," said Mathieu Lips, director of the Symbioz demo car project.
All of this is to avoid a perfect, vomitous storm of VR sickness and carsickness. "There is complete coherence between what you see on the screen, what your brain interprets and what your body is feeling [based on] what your inner ear interprets," Deborah Papiernik, senior VP at Ubisoft, told me. "And because there is perfect coherence in real time between the two, the experience is extremely comfortable."
That's not even mentioning the insanity of putting on a VR headset while driving, but Renault wanted to make a strong statement about the "mind off" idea. "They wanted an experience that would provide escapism, that would allow the driver to let go," Papiernik explains.
While you're in your VR bliss, the Symbioz keeps reality intrusions to a minimum. Renault worked with French highway company SANEF to automate the process of going through a toll booth and even erected special WiFi towers along our route. "They have installed five antennas called 'roadside units' that use the 5.0 GHz long-range WiFi," Lips told me. "Those will inform the vehicles about which toll gates doors are open for autonomous driving."
When the Symbioz approaches a pay toll, it automatically heads to a lane that supports autonomous driving and wireless payment. It's then supposed to slow to 30km/h (18MPH), transmit the payment, and pass the raised barrier without stopping.
During my demo ride, the EV concept did find and squeeze into the narrow automatic payment lane. However, rather than cruising through, it had to execute a "stop and go" maneuver due to the brutal weather. It was still an impressive display of the tech's potential, however.
During the drive, Renault gave me a demo of the AV system. As you'd expect, LG's OLED dislay provided a bright, contrasty video-viewing experience, though I found the screen a bit too small. The sound from the Devialet audio system was clear and very loud, considering that it uses sound modules six times smaller than regular car speakers.
All of that can be controlled by a special smartphone app, depending on the mode and where it detects that you are in the car. For instance, the driver won't see anything on the main screen unless the Symbioz is in AD mode. Instead, it will only turn on video for the rear passengers.
You can also control the climate, configuration of the car and other factors using the app. In the "Alone@home," mode, the dashboard and steering wheel retract, freeing up more space (this option wasn't available in the real car, just a static display). "Relax" moves the seats to a "zero-gravity" reclined position, while "Lounge" lowers the armrests and turns you 10 degrees toward your passenger.
Suffice to say, this is one complex car. "There is multiplicity of systems, complicated and innovative systems, which means a lot of interfaces between them," Lips explained. "And we only had one vehicle. The biggest challenge was to gather all this technology together into one unique [car]."
But wait, there's more
The Symbioz is equipped with almost too much tech to mention in a single article, but here are a few other highlights.
A fragrance dispenser with different odors depending on the driving mode.
An LED sunroof that's transparent in "classic" or auto-drive mode, but opaque in "dynamic" mode.
An app that transmits travel and vehicle information to your smartphone twice, 15 and five minutes before you depart.
Automatic "valet" parking.
A future system that could push the dashboard up and retract the steering wheel to give you more interior space.
"Zero gravity" seats that lay back nearly flat and a "lounge" mode that rotates them 10 degrees for more intimate proximity to seat-mates.
Dynamic dashboard animations depending on the drive mode
Sure, Renault's Symbioz test drives were a smart PR move to bring attention to its electric and self-driving vehicle development. (Putting a VR experience into a Level 4 self-driving EV is a pretty well-played strategy for enticing tech journalists.)
But Renault and its partners, Nissan and Mitsubishi, have an interesting story to tell. The alliance is looking at not just the technology for next-generation Leafs, Zoes and other green or autonomous cars, while also focusing on the driver experience.
"The Symbioz is our early interpretation of how the new technologies related to autonomous and new experiences in a car will come to market," said Redzik. "We're using this vehicle as an opportunity to learn ... to find out how else you can engage with the vehicle when you're not focused on driving."
By putting a VR headset on me in mid-drive, Renault showed that technology could make in-car entertainment comfortable and motion-sickness-free. At the same time, it forced me to confront the idea (and my fear) of AI completely taking over driving chores.
Another thing that I realized while driving blind on the freeway? Before I'm ready to release control, I want both technical and physical proof that the systems are infallible. The problems we had with the inclement weather showed me that the systems are still a work in progress, though Renault assured me that better tech is around the corner. "For sure, the sensors will improve," said Lips. "There is a lot of progress going on that will allow the car to rely more on its sensors."
A lot of car companies like GM, Waymo and Uber have big plans about ride-sharing, carpooling and hailing services, and Renault is no doubt exploring that too. The last time I checked, though, most of us were still alone in our cars.
The Symbioz does have a social aspect as a self-driving vehicle that can come into your house and entertain you and your family while you drive. But the most interesting part of it is what it can do for you when you're alone.
It's clear that self-driving EVs, once we figure out the tech, will help the planet and make our roads safer. But Renault has taken that idea further with the Symbioz, combining autonomous tech with entertainment options like VR to create a rolling cocoon that gives us a brief detente in our information-overloaded lives.
Rather than your commute being a kind of torture, it could become productive, a way to connect with yourself or get a moment to have a laugh, relax and be entertained. In other words, Renault has executed its vision of how self-driving cars may transform your A-to-B time-suck into one of the best parts of the day.