Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cars and Technology

When I grew up, it was only the radio that had any technology incorporated in cars. I know some of the cars had computers helping to run the engines, but for the most part the driver was insulated from the car technology. Aftermarket radios had more technology features, especially when it came to CDs, which were the rage as I left college.

These days I’ve been in lots of rental cars, looked at various cars as I’ve been in showrooms, and read a number of auto blogs. However as I’ve seen technology advance in many ways, I wasn’t sure where technology would go with cars, and how well it would work. It really seems there are limited ways in which technology really impacts me as a driver without causing danger. Or it did. I have some ideas now.

Note that I know lots of technology has been added for entertainment, especially for kids/back seat passengers. However that’s really been limited to video sources and limited PC integration.

Interesting Advances

There have been a few interesting advances over the years.

Keyless entry has been around for awhile, but proximity, or “smart keys” are fantastic. Our 2007 Prius has a key fob that will allow me to lock/unlock the doors when I’m next to the car. I can also keep the key in my pocket and start the car with a push button. There are aftermarket systems, though I’m not sure how hard they are to use. I love the convenience here, but I dislike the cost of keys ($200+). There’s also the issue of losing a key. It happens, and I’d prefer to have a real key as a backup, but many cars are moving away from that option.

Keypad locks are great, but only Ford/Nissan have implemented them. I’ve seriously considered moving to those models for that reason alone. Not needing a key is great, though I’d prefer a bigger keypad, perhaps a real 12 key pad.

Head Up Display, which I had hoped would catch on, is available in a few models, but only high end ones. I know this can be distracting, but I think a limited amount of information could be handy. I don’t want to get text messages up there, but I do think that it could be handy to have directions as in mapping, the speed limit, fuel alerts, even the road name I’m on.

Bluetooth integration is becoming more and and more common in cars. However the hassles I’ve found with Bluetooth often come from switching from device to device. For example, my wife and I have had to switch off Bluetooth on one phone to the other, which is distracting and arguably dangerous. Personally I’d like to have a few more features (see below).

Navigation started to gain traction, and we have it in the Prius, but with the advances in mobile phones, I think it’s mostly dead. However there are ways to integrate this better.

Entertainment services – I like to see Pandora, Spotify, etc. integrated into the car, but really these depend on your mobile phone. I think that’s fine, but rather that integrating a few apps, I think there ought to be better mobile OS integration instead (see below). The idea of grabbing DirecTV in your car is fine, but really with mobile advances, I’m not sure satellite makes sense anymore. 4G services more widely distributed might kills this.

Wireless Hot Spots – I’m not sure I want this integrated, or that it’s worked well, but it’s not a horrible idea. It just needs better integration.

Hybrid tech/electric cars – I think electric motors are a better idea, but the battery packs aren’t great. I love my Prius, but it really only works economically because I drive > 17k miles a year. Below that it starts to not be a great deal. I’m thinking that there’s a lot of work here to do, though regenerative systems might be table to help here with increasing MPG without as large a battery.

Things I’d like to see

One of the things I would love to see, and which would likely get me to upgrade/change my phone is wireless charging. The new Nexus 4 has a pad which can work with multiple phones. I’ve plugged in various phones, and even seen iPhone 30 pin chargers in cars, but those are susceptible to problems. However a slot or a holder, where I can drop my phone, and have it charge while still being Bluetooth connected, would be fantastic. As it is, trying to get a cord managed in a car is a huge hassle.

Voice technology, commonly called “Siri” is a great idea. My wife worked in this industry, and I do like Siri on my iPhone 4S at times. Not always, and it doesn’t always work in the car when I have passengers, but being able to ask for directions, ask to text someone is great. The problem is it doesn’t go far enough. Note this is available on other platforms, though similar services.

What I’d really like is more ability from voice services is to read me things. Let me ask for new emails, or tweets, or some set of things I’ve scheduled and have them read to me. I’d even like articles or new to be read to me, almost NPR style. I know this might require some content providers to add tags or something, but it’s possible and it would be handy. Let me get “customized” news or information, personal assistant style.

With that, I think the idea of separation needs to be a part of our audio. Bluetooth headsets work well, and this could be the technology that’s used, but in line with that, give me two options. One, a charger in the car, and two, a headset line that I can plug into if my battery is dead. I might have music playing, or want to privately hear texts/messages. Give me the option.

Inline with that, integrate with the various mobile OSes to take apps/functions installed on the phone and allow me to control them from the car. If there’s a voice service, let me have a button on the car that activates it. If I’ve got navigation, take the screen, or at least the directions from my device.

However taking apps from the phone is nice, but I’d also like to take the connection. Don’t give me another connection to my car, especially as speeds increase. I know carriers don’t like this, but they ought to get away from the “device” model and get to the “connection model” anyway. Let me activate a phone connection, tether it, and have the car repeat this, in a secure manner. Let me give the code to others in my car, and make it long and secure. Have it pop up on the dash somewhere for people in the car to read.

I also want more hard buttons. I like the ability to actually press a button or turn a knob. Especially when I’m driving and I can feel a button easier than I can find a place on the screen to press. The addition of buttons on the steering wheel, even the toggles on the back of the wheel, are really nice. However don’t assume that I want the buttons to do what you want them to. Give me hard buttons, but make them programmable. Let me set the buttons to change volume, or tune stations, or tune presets, as I choose. Let me set them to any function that’s integrated into the car. For example, the Prius temp controls are on the touch screen. However that’s not practical, or necessarily safe, when I’m driving. Fortunately I have a toggle on the steering wheel I can change by touch. Most cars don’t have that, but give me 10 buttons in places, and 4-6 toggles I can program away from the screen.

In terms of car technology outside of entertainment, there are a few interesting ideas in this article. I love the idea of cars communicating, especially if this is limited to warnings. I don’t want automatic braking. As much as I think this could help, I suspect it will get hacked to cause vandalism and trouble. Leave the driver in control for the most part. I do, however, like the idea of a self-driving car. I’d love to be able to read while the car tools down the highway.

There’s also a video on the top 5 reasons for self-driving cars. It raises some good points. Rather than having cars communicate, however, perhaps we’d like them to broadcast what they are doing, or about to do. Other cars can then look for braking, lane changes, or other cues that would allow them to respond quicker if necessary, and ignore the broadcast if the action didn’t materialize.

A few things to look at

C|Net Pictures of Ford EcoSport - http://reviews.cnet.com/2300-13746_7-10015928-7.html 

Ford EVOS concept - I can’t believe Ford ignores the gull wing doors. I’ve love those:


The Tesla Model X – This interests me: http://www.teslamotors.com/modelx

Tesla Model S - http://speedocars.com/2012-tesla-model-s-family-sedan.html

The Aptera – I’d consider this if I wasn’t in the country: http://www.aptera.com/

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