Renault’s concept EV drove me at 80MPH while I wore a VR headset

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.

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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.

Gallery: Renault Symbioz self-driving concept EV | 26 Photos

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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.)

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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,

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