Those of a certain generation will remember ‘Knight Rider’, the hit TV programme in which a pre-Baywatch David Hasselhoff fought the forces of evil in the company of KITT, his talking car. Most people probably recall watching it at a time when the concept of a responsive, talking, thinking motor vehicle seemed like a madly futuristic daydream. Although popular television shows are generally not the best forum via which to collate accurate predictions of the future, the interesting truth is that the idea of an ‘intelligent’ car which interacts with the driver is no longer quite so ridiculous. In fact, as the ‘internet of things’ expands to cover modes of transport, the intelligent, connected, even self-driving car, becomes more real all the time.
The kind of technology which drove (if you’ll pardon the expression) the expansion of androids, tablets and smartphones is now being applied to cars, and this digital land grab looks set to cover every aspect of motoring, from the gathering of diagnostic information and increased fuel efficiency to guiding drivers to the nearest restaurant or advising as to how long the traffic lights are going to be on red. The simple point is that once a car can be connected to the internet, and information traded back and forth, then the possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the manufacturers and the demands of the consumers. Throw in voice control for hands off safety and gesture and eye-tracking software which allows the car to second guess the driver, and you have a situation in which the very nature of driving ,and of how cars are perceived, looks set to change.
The initial developments are simple enough to guess – internet radio, apps which guide you around traffic jams in real time, parking assistance via cameras and sensors, all of these are already being seen. From 2015 onward, the EU plans to see to it that all new cars are fitted with eCall, a system of sensors which automatically call the emergency services in the event of an accident. We’re all used to our cars sporting on-board computers which monitor performance and warn of problems, but the dashboard warning light will soon be replaced with messages traded back and forth between car and manufacturer, monitoring every aspect of safety and performance and warning when the slightest problem emerges.
For the individual driver, these changes will mean convenience, novelty and an enhanced driving experience, but for the business with a fleet of vehicles to manage, the telematics involved could revolutionise the way they run things. With every aspect of fuel economy, mileage, weather conditions and driving technique collected and accessible instantly, fleet managers could adjust and modify everything from the routes their drivers take to the pressure in the tires and the driving techniques used (real time advice on gear changes cruising speed etc. will be offered and collected by the cars systems), whilst the car itself would offer advice on the cheapest petrol station within range. Information is power and the wealth of information available via internet connected cars will drive efficiency in fleet management at every level, from monitoring journey times to dictating vehicle selection.
Indeed, the ultimate fleet saving may well, one day, involve dispensing with the drivers altogether. At the further reaches of connected car technology lies the concept of the driverless car, championed by Google and currently being pushed forward by Mercedes, who plan to offer self-driving cars branded as ‘an extension of peoples’ homes’. It seems clear that where the driverless car is concerned, as was the case with Google Glass, any problems in take up will revolve around social attitudes rather than getting the technology to work. Mercedes talks of a car in which, once driverless mode has been selected, the driver can swivel their car to face the other passengers and glide along serenely, socialising as the car itself deals with oncoming traffic. The question, surely, is whether anyone who has ever had to deal with a glitching programme, crashing (unfortunate choice of word) computer or frozen app would be happy to relax and put their lives in the hands of their cars’ computer systems, however advanced they may be? Collecting information, monitoring every aspect of the environment inside and outside the vehicle and interacting with the driver all seem eminently sensible, but handing total control over may well turn out to be a Google Glass style step too far.
The combination of cutting edge technology and user friendly design is something which has always played a vital part in the websites we build, and the same principle is now being extended into real world as well as online environments, with an equally transformative impact.