We now carry movie screens around in our pockets. People can and do spend quality time with film classics on their smartphones, but nobody would argue that it’s the best viewing experience available.

Our new cars offer an ideal mobile solution in the form of a high-resolution touchscreen, but fear of driving distracted means for the most part, they’ll show movies only when the vehicle is parked. (Tesla is an exception.) Honestly now, are you going to sit in your car and watch a movie?

The coming age of the driverless car promises to liberate us from steering wheels and the need to pay attention to the road. That’s why new autonomous technology from Ford and BMW imagines a very cool viewing experience on the road.

Ford patentFord's patent on a drop-down screen for movies in the car. (Photo: Ford Motor Company)

Earlier this month, Ford filed for a patent on an “Autonomous Vehicle Entertainment System” for self-driving cars that effectively turns the windshield into a more than 50-inch viewing experience. Drivers could watch "Gone With the Wind" on a drop-down projector screen, or more intimate independent films on the dashboard display.

The patent abstract says:

The entertainment system controller presents media content on a first display while the vehicle is operating in the autonomous mode and on a second display when the vehicle is operating in a non-autonomous mode. A method includes determining whether a vehicle is operating in an autonomous mode [....] and transferring presentation of the media content to a second display when the vehicle is operating in a non-autonomous mode.

That seems to imply access to movies while actually driving, something that isn’t usually possible now. It makes sense for automakers to be staking out this legal territory now, but don’t assume it means that the auto movie theater is around the corner. I think we still have 10 years to go before real hands-off self driving.

BMW DixiBMW's first car, the Austin-derived Dixi, at Amelia Island. After 100 years, the company is also looking forward. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

BMW is also thinking ahead, on the occasion of its centenary. At the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida, the company was showing off its first vehicles, including a 1930 Austin-derived 3/15 Dixi, and a 1927 R32 motorcycle. But it’s the company’s future vision that’s really arresting.

Click here for details about the Vision Next 100, a self-driving BMW. At Amelia Island, BMW spokesman Tom Plucinsky told me the car is autonomous when you don’t want to drive, and an Ultimate Driving Machine when you do. It can see around corners, displaying obstacles as ghosted images on its full-width heads-up display.

BMW Vision Future InteractionInside the BMW Vision Next 100, with a full-width heads-up display that becomes a connectivity screen in autonomous mode. (Photo: BMW)

Do we know what’s under the hood? Not really, though it’s supposed to be an electric drivetrain. I suggested i8 locomotion, but Plucinsky shook his head. “It’s supposed to be further ahead than that,” he said.

When in autonomous mode, the Vision Next 100’s steering wheel retracts, the interior becomes a living room, and the heads-up display becomes a connectivity screen that can display maps, the Internet or whatever else you want. By then, I’m sure the engineers will have figured out how to project high-grade video on glass.

The Mercedes-Benz F 105 Luxury in Motion self-driving concept has huge side windows that change to interactive screens if you don’t want to watch the passing scene. You sit on the four rotating chairs and access “six display screens that form a 360° virtual arena.” I’m down with that.

Listen to the futurists. Wired writes, “It could be a while before you can kick back and watch "Mad Max" or play "Rocket League" from the comfort of your front seat, but with the idea out there and autonomous cars getting smarter, it may not actually be too far off.”

Here's a closer look on video at the Mercedes F 015, with windows that double as viewing screens:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

In-car movies? They're coming soon
New autonomous technology from Ford and BMW imagines a very cool viewing experiences on the road.