A pledge from Jaguar Land Rover’s head of research and technology activities, Dr. Wolfgang Epple, that there will never be a JLR driverless car may seem like an unlikely way to kick start an afternoon devoted to showcasing some of its most exciting new technologies.

For JLR at least, technology won’t be about taking the driver out of the driving, but about making it a more pleasurable activity. One that allows the driver to pass the tedious aspects onto the car - such as getting out of a tight parking space, or driving on heavily congested roads - while reserving the enjoyable bits for themselves.

It’s the second annual future technology showcase, and as Jaguar Land Rover freely admits it’s a mixture of technologies a handful of years down the road and those that are 20 or 25 years away, and may include some that may never end up on the road.

Some of these technologies are already being tried out on the roads of JLR’s test centre. We tried a Range Rover Evoque capable of sensing and gathering data on potholes – using technology the car already has in place to note and adjust to a bumpy road – but with the vision of gathering data to warn other road users and local government authorities, and developing sensors capable of predicting a pothole before it was even reached (current JLR technology enables the car to respond by changing suspension in a matter of milliseconds).

Another striking technology we got to try is the “haptic” pedal – an accelerator pedal capable of giving you sensory vibrations or intermittent taps – essentially a nudge to ensure you know you must take appropriate action. The idea being that a touch is far more likely to garner an immediate response than sound or visual stimuli. It’s the sort of technology that will be crucial in the development of autonomous or semi autonomous cars to ensure there’s always a way of re-engaging the driver when needed.

Smartphone drive

The most headline-grabbing technology has been the smart-phone driven Range Rover Sport - and it’s certainly one that makes practical sense. The sort of situations envisioned for it might be driving out of a gate you have to close afterwards, or getting out of a tricky parking spot, or driving over rough terrain. We were driven over a steep ledge, where it’s clearly far easier to monitor the best route standing outside the vehicle than anywhere inside the car. There are lots of reassuring safety features – once in smart-phone driven mode the car can't be driven from within (preventing pets from being a hazard) and it can only happen when it senses a smart key (which must be outside the car) and only within a range of 10 meters. The app itself is surprisingly simple and logical to use - eerily close to an interface you might use on a computer game.

Equally impressive was the Range Rover Sport that did a three-point turn, seamlessly and steadily with the help of camera and radar sensors, though this is only semi autonomous as it currently requires you to do the safety checks. The longer-term plan is to bring in sensors that could let the driver know it’s safe to start the manoeuvre.

Though the on-road technologies do leave you feeling like your own car is of a completely different species, it’s the stuff happening in the lab that’s really startling, particular what JLR refers to as the human machine interface. One thing the company is looking at is monitoring your well-being and state of alertness – this will be crucial to introducing any form of autonomy in the future as the machine would have to be able to detect if it’s safe to return the vehicle to the hands of the driver.

It could, in the longer term, also trigger an emergency stop if needed, or give the driver a gentle nudge through the haptic pedal or a move of the steering wheel, lights or temperature.

We’re shown sensors built into a seat that pick up heart rate and breathing, but most interesting is a project called Mind Sense that attempts to monitor (and eventually trigger reactions to) brain wave frequencies. We got to try out a steering wheel, which with an astonishing degree of accuracy sensed levels of concentration. It picked up on, for example, when someone was speaking to a person on a virtual drive, temporarily distracting them.

Steering the future

There’s also a lot of predictive work going on – we tried a sensor that can accurately track the trajectory of your finger to sense which button you are going to press, from centimetres away. This sort of technology could be crucial, given that even two seconds saved could mean 60 meters travelled when attention is not diverted. In tandem, they’re also developing tech that would give you the sensation of touching something without touching it – the idea being that if the technology sensed which button you wanted to press, this could let you know your choice had been registered without touching.

There was also research going on about developing the cognitive capabilities and memory of cars, and how it could learn and react to a driver’s preferences and habits. Of course not all projects may come to fruition, but one thing the demonstrations did make clear is that a completely driverless car is pretty overrated.