Please Silicon Valley. Do Not Turn The Car Into Another Boring Box.

Brian S Hall / May 12th, 2014

We stand at the intersection of the Internet of Things and the Connected Car. Soon, Cortana shall summon to us a driverless, fully autonomous vehicle, shared by the community, owned by no one, that will safely transport us to our chosen locale, as we tweet, stream, and tap away from the comfort of the back seat. Mostly, this is good. For most even, it will likely be very good. But I fear one of humanity’s greatest inventions, the car, will be reduced to yet another boring box, stuffed with computer chips, powered by lines of codes, and possessing no soul.

Please Silicon Valley, do not kill my love for the car.

huracan

One Piece At A Time

A revolution is taking place within the automotive industry. It began not in Detroit, Germany or Tokyo, but as with all revolutions, from the outside. In this case, Silicon Valley. The spread of computing, connectivity and the cloud has at last reached our cars. Driving — and automobiles — will never be the same.

Per the glorious visions of venture capitalists, the new market dreams of old world automakers and the ceaseless, prosaic functions of the Internet of Things, this is our car’s very-near future: Sensors under the hood, inside the dash, within the tires, sensors embedded in the roads and placed above traffic lights, all pumping out streams of data in real time, sent via telemetry to nearby vehicles, transmitted to the web for processing and analysis, shared with the crowd, then acted upon by the many computer chips within our own increasingly self-aware vehicle, all part of a highly monetizable big data ecosystem.

I am not at all opposed to this. Such efforts will almost certainly lead to faster commutes, a greener planet, fewer accidents and many saved lives. The Silicon Valley vision for the car of tomorrow should be lauded.

Vallabhaneni_Autonomous_Vehicle

I ask only that the very best aspects of the car be carried forward into the future and not de-constructed into little more than a cubicle on wheels.

As a native Detroiter, I know cars are more than just data generators. Cars are freedom, independence, liberty, aspiration, mobility. In so many ways, cars disconnect us from the world as they reconnect us with our primal emotions. Cars are beautiful, personal, powerful. I want this not to go away.

I am not at all convinced we can trust Silicon Valley to transform these glorious mechanical objects into anything other than another node in a data-fueled, globe spanning web.

Let Me Ride

While driverless cars, as Google has promoted, are likely a decade away from practical use, semi-autonomous vehicles should be available in the developed world well before the end of this decade. The Internet of Things will enable these semi-autonomous, ‘situationally aware’ vehicles to keep us properly centered in the lane, to apply the brakes if we, the ‘driver,’ fail to spot the pedestrian in the crosswalk. They can ease off the throttle should they sense another vehicle is too close.

The car of 2020, and probably much sooner, will inform us when we are driving too fast given the current road conditions — and take corrective action should we fail to heed its informed advice.

connected car

These semi-autonomous vehicles will communicate with other cars, busses, navigation services and transit authorities as much as they communicate with us. This is good. As a proponent of mobile technologies, the cloud, wearables, sensors, Bluetooth, et al, I fully appreciate the value that comes from the open sharing of our data. If I am stuck in traffic, by all means let my car inform others of a better route. If a driver’s car wishes to inform those of us a few minutes behind that there’s a hidden police stop, good for us.

Above all however, the connected car will make for safer roads. Over 95% of all car accidents are caused by driver error. The Internet of Things will put a stop to this.

According to Intel, which is keen to put still more computing chips into our cars, with a mere one second warning, over 90% of all car accidents could be prevented. A half-second warning will prevent over 50% of all car accidents. Sensors and computer chips can act faster than us. They can also behave far more rationally. If we are being dumb, careless, foolish or simply unaware behind the wheel, our connected car can save us from ourselves — and save many others as well.

Over one million people die each year from car accidents. The benefits of integrating connectivity and computing inside our cars and within our road systems is significant.

And yet…

I still want the car to remain mostly mechanical, always beautiful, powerful, visceral — all those things that are never considered relevant in Silicon Valley.

Where I come from, it was absolutely no coincidence the boy whose father let him borrow the Camaro Z28 happened to be dating the prom queen.

No parallel to this exists for the young man with the biggest PC tower or the newest smartphone.

When it comes to our cars, whether for 2015 or 2025, let us not place clock speed above top speed, throughput over horsepower, or user interface above road handling. Nodes have primal desires, too.

jemoeder

No Particular Place To Go

While few things in life are as joyous as a fast car, top down, the open road beckoning, music blaring, such moments are rare. No matter how beautiful or powerful the car, the daily commute can be a grind. The connected car helps mitigate this, delivering all the comforts of our modern, fully connected world, accessible via a tap on the screen, or a command from our voice.

Stuck in traffic? No worries. The smartphone-like cars of post-2015 will offer:

  • streaming music, your favorite podcasts, even videos (for the kiddies)
  • news, weather, market data — read aloud, even personalized, as your new car, like a giant rolling Siri, knows your interests
  • geofenced notifications
  • Twitter and Facebook updates, voice driven, naturally
  • the fastest routes to everywhere you want to go
  • the nearest gas stations and restaurants
  • driving analysis, perhaps even a driver ‘Klout’ score based on your speed, how hard you brake, how close you were driving to other vehicles
  • engine diagnostics

These are all good. Silicon Valley is actively seeking to disrupt our commute. I stand with them. As our cars become increasingly more connected, tapping more computing power, more crowd wisdom, more algorithmic analysis, our driving should improve, our commutes should become more enjoyable,  and ultimately, personal productivity should increase. Quite possibly, stress levels will all go down.  

Again, my selfish concern is that these measurable goods will increasingly lead to an emphasis on “cars” that maximize efficiency, comfort, UIs, and that offer the best search, the most up-to-date data, the sharpest display.

A box.

Help Me, Apple. You’re My Only Hope

Is it possible to have the best of tomorrow with the best of yesterday?

Koenigsegg-Agera-Head-On

I believe in the beneficent power of technology and innovation. I fully appreciate that Big Tech, Big VC, and Big Government want a lead role in the multi-trillion-dollar Internet of Things revolution. All are eager to remake our existing infrastructure, to place “intelligence” inside our cars, to link driver, car, road, and metro transit system into a cohesive, smartly flowing whole. I accept their work will alter not only driving but possibly even remake our towns and cities.

Why, then, does this make me a bit uneasy?

I do not fear my next car will experience a blue screen of death. Well, not much. Nor am I terribly worried hackers will access my car’s data, which will no doubt be linked to a payment system that lets me speed through electronic tollbooths.

I fear Silicon Valley will fail to divine the value in what makes cars glorious, and reduce the ultimate driving machine to just one more computing device.

Should I be disheartened or joyful that Apple SVP Eddy Cue joined the Ferrari board in 2012? Or that Apple SVP Phil Schiller sees fit to have a Racer X avatar on his Twitter profile?

phil schiller3

Will these Apple executives help keep our cars from becoming just the latest personal computer box?  I can’t afford a Ferrari, although I can pretend I’m Racer X — or possibly his brother, Speed. The question is, how long can I maintain the dream?

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.
  • jfutral

    I loved a commercial not too long ago that said something like “When you get in and turn your car on, wouldn’t it be great if it returned the favor?”

    Joe

  • Bruce_Mc

    Most cars already are boring boxes, simple transportation appliances. This has been true for decades. This situation is considered normal by those who grew up in those decades. Your heartfelt plea marks you as someone who grew up before cars became boring.

    Non-boring cars like the ones pictured in your post are made for the same reason as wristwatches that need winding – as toys for rich old men. Both the cars and the watches are equally well made, equally pointless, and fundamentally obsolete.

    • Rene Stein

      I completely agree with you. The interesting thing about the smartphone world is that no matter how rich you are, you cannot purchase a smartphone that is better than what the typical Wal-Mart dweller has. Because they are small and purely electronic, there are severe limiting factors on ways that they can be improved.

      I think that it would be mostly wonderful for the automobile industry to go down this route as well. It is high time society quit trying to express its individuality through consumption and started to express it through creation.

      • I think your views reflect the path we are on. I just don’t want to be on that path.

        • Rene Stein

          That’s because you, like me, are the 1%ers globally. (At least income wise I am, you only need to earn about $34,000 per year). A democratization of material goods is generally going to involve less aspirational possessions for us. Someone is going to have to take a cut in lifestyle in order for us to approach sustainability.

      • Bruce_Mc

        Rene, thanks for expressing my sentiments in a more positive way. Note that passion can be found in many pursuits and expressed in many ways. Most are less costly and destructive than the automobile. For a substitute to car passion, try an e-bike, or if you are really adventurous, an electric skateboard!

  • Given that by 2060, it will be illegal for humans to drive vehicles in the USA, who cares what cars look like? Transportation. A to B.
    Of course, unlike Brian, my father bought Ramblers.

    • stefnagel

      Yep. We flippity humans aren’t very good at driving. Too easily distracted by … squirrel!

      • klahanas

        Bullwinkle? That you? 🙂

        • stefnagel

          Search Disney Pixar Up! Squirrel scenes

          • klahanas

            Loved it! Thanks.

    • Fathers are supposed to be practical.

  • RAZ

    As one of the well under 10% of American drivers who still likes driving with a stick I philosophically agree with you. The downside of all the electronics and automatic mechanisms is a driving experience that is less involving and less fun. I appreciate Nav and Bluetooth phone etc., but I’ll rue the day I have to drive an autonomous vehicle.

    • Space Gorilla

      The autonomous vehicle is better for everyone. Then you can go to a track on the weekend and drive a real race car. I drive all sorts of equipment on the farm, I’m sick of manual transmissions. If I’m going to go offroading or race a car, then I’ll do that. But I have no desire to drive in traffic and pretend I’m eeking out every drop of performance. Actual racing is fun. Driving is boring as hell.

  • Mauryan

    No more DUI issues when self driving cars arrive. One can get drunk up to the nostrils, fall into the car and say, “Take me to h..He..avan” and the car will go somewhere until it stops in the corn fields of Kansas.

    Police can neutralize cars by sending overriding signals to bring it and park at the court or prison gates if they want it.

    Speed limits can be strictly imposed. Any car exceeding the speed limits can now get a signal to shut the engine off and be reduced into a short-circuited box that needs to be towed in order to pay the fine.

    And geeks and hackers will have a field day sending in signals to confuse cars. Now owners will have to worry about viruses getting into their on-board systems and sending the car in reverse instead of forward.

    Manual override is always there. But once you get used to keyless starters, sliding windows, rear view cameras etc, who feels like driving the old ways?

    And car prices will go up, each time they add more gadgets. A simple Corolla used to cost about 8500 dollars. It was a stick-shift and had a fantastic engine. Today the same car costs double that and more.

    We are looking at 30-grand car prices in the future with all gadgets added in, where you can put an eye cover and let the car drive off on its own to work.

    Hopefully Americans will have jobs left to be able to buy such cars.

  • klahanas

    The driver MUST still know how to drive!!!
    When calculators first came out many luddites were concerned that kids won’t be able to do arithmetic. Ha! Well weren’t they…….oh dear…..never mind….
    Calculators liberated kids that DID know how to do arithmetic, and freed them into thinking on how to USE arithmetic, and how these numbers all fit together.

  • Will

    Cars should have never been so “loved” by their owners, as you seem to be. They are an outdated tool, move on already.

    • Objects of beauty, power, ingenuity, offering freedom and mobility. I will always love them.

      • Will

        What they offer can be supplied by something better. Take that away and it will lose it’s lustre.

        I get your point though

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