It is now a pretty safe assumption that the future of motoring is autonomous vehicles. In the not-too-distant future, if Google, Uber and Tesla get their way, paying attention to the road may no longer be an important part of getting from A to B.
But what about all of those legacy vehicles on the road? As we transition to this future there will still be millions of cars on the road that are driven manually, so what can be done to make the driving experience more tolerable to those of us who will still be stuck behind the wheel?
Meet Navdy. It is a new attempt to replace your satnav, your CarPlay or Android Auto, and your dashboard. It will allow you to live your vicarious dreams of being a fighter pilot, by projecting a heads up display directly into your field of vision when you’re looking at the road.
Last week I got a chance to try it out for myself, driving into the heart of central London from Alexandra Palace.
The device sits on top of your steering column - and there’s a pane of glass which flips up, so that some clever projection technology can make the on-screen text and images appear as though they are floating approximately a metre in front of your face.
On screen text and maps appear rather clear indeed - even in direct sunlight, and I can say this from my hands-on experience.
To control the device, there are two input methods which work in tandem with each other: There’s a small click-wheel which straps onto your steering wheel. As you spin it around you can feel every notch as it ticks by, which is important as it means you don’t need to be looking down at it. It connects to the main unit via Bluetooth, and is powered by a watch battery. There’s also a camera on the Navdy base unit pointing at the driver, which is used to enable gesture controls.
This means waving your arm in the air while at the wheel - but to keep things simple, Navdy has paired it down to just two simple commands: A left-swipe and a right-swipe. Right is the affirmative - for example, to answer a call - and left is to reject, such as to reject a call or hide a notification.
The good news is that you don’t need keep charging up the main device - it draws its power directly from your car, and connects to your car via the OBD port - the thing that engineers use during MOT tests to analyse your engine. This port has been standardised across all vehicles for a decade or so now - and this means that as you’re driving along Navdy doesn’t just show you a map, but it’ll also show you how fast you’re going too - taking data directly from the engine. You’ll have no reason to look down at the dashboard and take your eyes off of the road. So could Navdy help us drive better while we wait for the robots to take over?
I got behind the wheel of a test car provided by Navdy. This isn’t a full review, but it is a hands-on impression as I was able to drive around for about an hour.
When you first sit behind the wheel, it takes a few minutes to acclimatise to the new device - as you have to keep reminding yourself that you don’t need to look down at the dash to see how fast you’re going. But quickly, it becomes the new normal, becoming second nature to slightly refocus your vision and quickly glance at the map to figure out which turning you need to take.
Setting up a journey is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is fire up the Navdy app on your phone and it’ll use Google Maps to figure it out before sending the details to the dash-mounted device. There’s no need to worry too if you lose phone signal during your journey, as the on-board maps are stored locally on the device and are powered by Here Maps (which used to be Nokia maps before it was bought by Volkswagen).
Also on the app you can configure which notifications feed through to Navdy on an app-by-app basis. This means that you can, say, select to have WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger alerts pop up on your windscreen, while saving the Farmville reminders until you’re safely parked up. You can also choose how notifications appear: whether they appear as text on screen, read to you, or both.
You can also use the dial to select what sort of view you’d like. For example - you can have the navigation front and centre, or if you’re on your regular commute and know where you’re heading you can have a more minimalist view which lacks a map and merely shows the speedometer and notifications.
And of course, you can use Navdy to play music from your phone, with all of the music controls you’d expect. What was interesting, though, was seeing how this interacted with the car’s own sound system. Because I was driving a car that Navdy had hired, it hadn’t been fully configured for the new device. So every time the device went to read out a SatNav instruction, it kicked the car’s sound system into play. This meant that a screen built into the dashboard would pop-up and it would autoplay the last played track at full volume. So if you pick up a Navdy, be prepared to spend a few minutes figuring out how best to configure your car’s built in system.
All in all, from my brief hands on it appears that Navdy is a pretty neat device. But here’s the bombshell: If you want to buy one, it’ll set you back £599. Yes, almost six hundred pounds.
My immediate reaction to this is that this feels like an awful lot of cash for something that is pretty neat, but not exactly essential. £599 feels steep. Navdy’s representative did say that you can buy one on a payment plan over two years - which apparently works out at about the cost of a cup of coffee a day, but this really struggles to cross the psychological barriers in my mind.
I’m also curious as to how such a device fits into the wider motoring eco-system. Because it is a third party device, it is disadvantaged in terms of accessing the smart stuff on your phone compared to Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. Aftermarket add-ons for these two systems are now available in a similar price range, and offer better app integration. The trade off, of course, is no whizzy heads-up display.
To a certain extent too, I also wonder if this version of Navdy - version 1 - is more of a proof of concept. Presumably the company’s business development people are hoping that they’ll be able to sell the technology direct to car manufacturers and have the clever display built in to future cars - and ultimately, perhaps this would be a saner way of absorbing the premium price.
If it were £200 it’d be a no-brainer - especially if you have an older car that lacks mod-cons like satnav built in, as it adds an extra layer of intelligence to your car - and a new, arguably better way of staying safe by not having to look down. But at the price the company is touting, on the strength of my brief drive, I’m going to wait and see what happens next.