August 6, 2012
If you’re over 50 and bought a new car recently, you’ve no doubt had the same reaction to the dashboard that I did, which was: “What is all this?”
I realize that these days data is to be revered and that a moment without infotainment or, perish the thought, a Web connection, is viewed as life not worth living. Yet I can’t shake the notion that the point of getting in a car is to drive it somewhere and that this has generally not required that I be so well-informed or emotionally fulfilled.
The above statement, of course, lowers me deep into the pit of fogeyishness and I know that frankly, no companies, save those that sell medications, see me and my ilk as a valued demographic. For carmakers, certainly, the target is the generations for which any screen, including a dashboard, should be a gateway to friends and music and info gratification. And it’s become critical for them to start delivering on that expectation since research suggests that the younger slice of that market isn’t as enanmored of the whole driving thing as their predecessors were–the percentage of young licensed drivers in the U.S. keeps dropping.
A new digital divide
So we’re moving quickly into the era of the connected car, with vehicles seen as rolling smartphones with easy access to Facebook and Twitter and to mobile apps, such as Pandora and Yelp. Any question about when this is going mainstream was answered a few weeks ago when Honda announced that starting this fall, a system called HondaLink will be offered in new Honda Accords. It will allow drivers to stream Internet radio, download audiobooks, see ratings for nearby restaurants and have Facebook feeds read to them.
With HondaLink, as with similar systems on other models, your smartphone will feed info from the Web into the dashboard display. But when is all the stuff on the screen too much? Well, it depends on your age. While three out of four car owners in a new Harris Poll said in-car connectivity could be too distracting, when people were asked about the appeal of connected cars, the results broke down along a generational digital divide.
Less than 40 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 50 and 66 think it’s important to have a connected car; drop down into the 18-to-35 age group and the approval rating jumps to almost 60 percent. And two out of three people in the younger group said a car’s technology would likely influence their next car-buying decision; in the older group, the number was under 50 percent. One other notable difference: Younger drivers were more concerned about privacy, specifically what connectivity would reveal about their driving habits and how that could affect their insurance rates.
Siri, tell that guy’s car that he’s a jerk
Automakers say all the in-dash technology will make drivers less likely to use their phones while they’re at the wheel. The big question, of course, is whether one distraction is simply being traded for another. Given that within the next five years, at least an estimated 80 percent of the new cars in North America and Europe will have Internet access, this is no small matter. The U.S. Department of Transportation already has weighed in with voluntary guidelines, which basically tell carmakers to keep it simple. It’s true that distracted driving will become less of an issue when driverless cars hit the market, but that’s still years away.
The focus now is on finding the most efficient ways to get our cars to do our bidding. Ford, whose MyFordTouch system has made it a leader in what’s known as in-car telematics, gives you three options: you can use a new and improved touch screen in the middle of the instrument panel, you can use secondary controls on the steering wheel or you can just speak your mind with the hope that the machine will catch your drift.
Actually, you have a much better chance these days that your voice commands will be understood. There’s little question that Siri, the iPhone’s digital assistant, has racheted up the capabilities of voice recognition. So it’s not surprising that most of the major automakers, will the exception of Ford, are seriously considering integrating Siri’s Eyes Free into their new vehicles. It’s a feature on the steering wheel, which like the button on the iPhone, would allow you to strike up a conversation with the ever-servile Siri.
Or you can just talk with your hands. And your face. Harman, the car infotainment systems supplier, has developed a concept car in which you can control the dashboard techonology with gestures. A wink turns the radio on, a tilt of your head to the left or right turns the volume up or down and a tap on the steering wheel skips to the next song. And if you want to make a call? Right, thumb up, pinkie out.
Here are more of the latest advances using car sensors and other fresh tech:
- When cars talk: A year-long research project involving 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan will analyze how enabling cars to talk to one other reduces collisions. The study will also try to determine whether warning sounds or visual signals are better at helping drivers avoid crashes.
- You’ll feel a sneeze coming: Ford has just come out with an Allergy Alert app. It aggregates info from Pollen.com to let drivers whose cars have Ford’s Sync system know about the pollen levels where they are. Also the asthma risk and the level of ultraviolet rays.
- Straighten up and drive right: More cutting-edge stuff from Ford. It has developed a technology called Traffic Jam Assist that uses cameras and sensors to ensure that your car stays in its lane and keeps pace with other vehicles in traffic.
- I brake for crashes: As of 2014, the European Commission will not give its five-star safety rating to any car without autonomous emergency braking. It’s a system using sensors and cameras to track the distance to a car in front of you. If it sees the threat of a crash, the brakes apply on their own.
- Bad moods: Toyota is developing technology that will use a camera to analyze drivers’ facial expressions. If you look sad or angry, the vehicle will sound warning alerts sooner since research shows that people in those emotional states are less alert to road hazards.
Video bonus: Here’s a Smart Planet video that explains how cars talking to one another could dramatically reduce the number of crashes, particularly in intersections.
More from Smithsonian.com
January 9, 2012
It’s time again for the Super Bowl of Stuff. Its official name is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and this is the week when Las Vegas gets its wonk on, filling up with people who prefer gizmos over G-strings and find nothing quite so ravishing as a TV screen big enough to need two zip codes.
CES brings its own kind of decadence to Sin City, one that cranks up consumption by making the gadgets you got last month already feel retro. But it also has been the event where we’ve taken our first looks at tech that quickly moved into our daily lives–the VCR in 1970, the camcorder and CD player in 1981, DVRs and high-definition TVs in 1998.
This year, though, CES is going through some changes. Yes, tonight, as usual, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will kick things off with the opening keynote address. But it will be Microsoft’s CES swan song; the company won’t be back next year. At the same time, the keynoter tomorrow morning is someone who’s never been there before–Dieter Zetsche, Daimler chairman and head of Mercedes-Benz. And among the three speakers on Wednesday morning’s “CES Innovation Power Panel” is Ford CEO Alan Mulally. Ford alone will have 20 models on display.
Bottom line: CES is turning into a mini-auto show.
What’s driving this is the belief that modern cars need to be as much smartphone as vehicle, that just because you’re cruising down the highway doesn’t mean you should feel any less connected than you do on your couch. Auto execs talk about turning cars into “infotainment centers” and are promising that models of the future shouldn’t be any less a personal assistant than Apple’s Siri, the voice-controlled digital concierge on the iPhone 4S. Why shouldn’t you be able to ask your car to read you your email or have it know which tunes you like to hear when you’re out on the interstate?
Daimler’s Zetsche and Ford’s Mulally will likely talk about cloud computing from inside your auto, how your car and smartphone will soon be talking to each other and how you’ll one day be able control the temperature, the speaker volume and and plenty of other things simply by moving your fingers without your hands leaving the wheel.
Mulally also will bang the drums for a new smartphone app called MyFord Mobile, rolled out in conjunction with Ford’s first electric car, the Focus Electric, which hits the market later this year. The app will let users check the charge level of their cars, find charging stations, warm up or cool down the interior and unlock the doors, all while they’re away from their vehicles.
Talk about a dream car
But the Ford product at CES most likely to make gearheads gaga is its latest concept car, the Ford Evos. Keep in mind that concept cars are meant to be way out of the box and sometimes can end up looking daft. (Consider the Ford Nucleon, a concept car unveiled in 1957 that was supposed to be powered by a small nuclear reactor in the back.)
As envisioned by Ford, the Evos would start its day while you’re still sleeping, checking the weather, traffic reports, your email and work schedule, then, based on what it finds out, tells your alarm clock when you need to get up. It would also know what you’ve been listening to and resume playing it when you get in the car. If conditions are dicey, it can check your heart rate and switch your smartphone to Do Not Disturb mode. Or if you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, your buddy Evos would take over the driving and let you answer emails. It could even direct you away from roads where pollution levels are high, then wrap things up by finding you parking space.
Nice concept, eh?
By the way, a few days ago Ford announced that it will open an R&D lab in Silicon Valley this year. Renault-Nissan, GM, BMW and Volkswagen are already there.
Here are some other gadgets that will get some attention at CES this week:
- Thanks, I needed that: BodyMedia has mixed a nifty armband with IBM software to create a device that gives you access to your own personal digital trainer and nutritionist.
- Another reason not to read in the dark: There’s now a cover for the Kindle that uses solar power to give your tablet a nice long charge, compliments of a company called SolarFocus.
- The ride stuff: The iBike Powerhouse attaches to a bike and uploads your performance data to an iPhone and sets goals for your next ride. It also gives you digital pep talks.
- Turning up the heat: The Nest Learning Thermostat tracks your habits in adjusting the heat in your home for a week, then takes over and adjusts the temperature for you. And it gives you a report on your energy savings.
- Where, oh where has my iPhone gone?: BungeeAir Protect has come up with a wireless “tether” that lets you know if you’ve strayed too far from your iPhone.
Video Bonus: Go along for the ride as Ford spins the tale of its Evos concept car.