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State of the Union: Automobiles

Audi Concept (CES 2012) 003

The emergence of an automobile department on a tech blog like TechnoBuffalo may seem baffling to some readers. After all, Mr. Lakers got his start unboxing MacBooks and smartphones and we as a site have focused mainly on mobile technology since the incipience of TechnoBuffalo. But why have GM and Ford invited me out to Detroit several times to cover their new vehicles? How come the entire North Hall at CES was dominated by the likes of Mercedes, Audi, Kia and other auto manufacturers? What does the modern automobile have to do with consumer technology?

The answer to the last question is that the modern automobile has everything to do with consumer technology. The rise of mobile technology means that consumers are no longer viewing their vehicles as “cars,” but rather as connected mobile portals that store and house portions of their digital lives. In-dash touchscreen interfaces with cloud connectivity and downloadable applications are a prime example.

Then there’s the resurgence of petrol-based combustion engine alternatives like electric and hybrid vehicles. There’s a mountain of technology right there. And finally, cars are getting safer. Mobile connection, alternative energy and safety are the three whips on this Autobahn, so buckle up and start your quiet, lithium-ion-powered engine.

The Mobile Connection

KITT-Hassellhoff

Imagine a world where car and driver are best friends. I draw my parallels to David Hassellhoff and KITT from Knight Rider. The Hoff and the Knight Industries Two Thousand communicated with one another verbally, and the car altered its behavior based on human dictates. KITT was, in a way, the first “Smart Car” thanks to its “self-aware” cybernetic logic module. Although we’re miles away from a full-scale production KITT, the future seems to be headed in that direction.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t see KITT’s flame-throwing and tear gas-launching apparatuses making it to the consumer market.

We can already start our cars, lock the doors and check vital information including tire pressure and fluid levels courtesy of mobile apps like MyFord Mobile and GM’s OnStar. Electric vehicle owners can start and end charging cycles with their smartphones. All of this is completed remotely, meaning cars are connected — they’re in the Matrix. Mercedes and GM plan on 4G LTE inside the vehicle in the near future. Mercedes also demoed a rather compelling system that analyzes the road and suggests restaurants and lodging on an interactive screen embedded in the car’s windshield. It is my firm belief that we will have KITTs in the future—cars that are much more than a set of wheels and an engine.

MyFord-Touch-Update-6

Even dash interface designs have taken cues from the mobile industry. Take Cadillac’s Cue system, for example. Similar to Android or iOS, Cadillac Cue has an applications tray with customizable icons and runs on Linux. The Cadillac Cue system uses a Javascript HTML5-enabled browser and has Bluetooth 3.0 support for up to 10 devices with two active at the same time. Don’t forget Cue’s Nuance Voice Recognition. All of this dash technology is not merely a product of marketing — it’s the manufacturer’s recognition that we, as consumers, have insatiable appetites for a mobile connection across all environments, whether the home, the office or the car.

The Green Revolution

Chevy-Volt-MVR-Dramatic-Back

Oil has an expiration date—this we’ve known for years. The days of the gasoline imbibing 15MPG V8 may be numbered, at least on the consumer scale. And the consumer scale constitutes the majority of the automobile market. So we’ve turned to technology to aid us in the quest for more environmentally sound powerplants. Yet this crusade is nothing new. Electric vehicles have been around since the 1830s. In fact, Henry Ford’s wife had a 1914 Detroit Electric that boasted an 80-mile range, double that of today’s Chevy Volt! So what happened to the alternative engine brigade? They were run off the road by Mr. Henry Ford and his affordable gas-powered Model Ts at the turn of the 20th century.

Gasoline has been an essential component of our lives since the day we were brought into the world. But the Toyota Prius solidified the eco-friendlier paradigm shift by putting hybrids on the map. Since its debut, the Toyota Prius has been one of the most successful cars in production, and it has inspired Honda (Civic Hybrid), Ford (Focus Hybrid) and others to capitalize on the hybrid craze. Suddenly a car’s MPG stats became a prime selling point, thanks to advances in powertrain technology via lithium ion batteries and regenerative braking, along with intelligent dashes that graph driver efficiency and car performance.

Fast forward to 2012, and we’ve all gone Electric—boogie woogie. Now it’s the size and performance of the lithium-ion battery, the in-dash interface and the charging range that take the cake. Every manufacturer wants a piece of the electric pie—Ford’s new Fusion Electric with its claimed 100-mile range, Chevy’s electric/gasoline Volt hybrid with 40 mile range, Nissan’s 80-mile range Leaf, and of course the wildly expensive Tesla Model S Signature with a claimed 300-mile range. Most every car manufacturer at CES this year showed some kind of electric vehicle, whether it was Audi’s Urban Concept or Ford’s Fusion Electric.

Electric cars have are a few limitations at the current moment, namely range anxiety and price. In order for electric vehicles to be successful, lithium-ion battery technology needs to improve tenfold. If you run solely on battery power, the Chevy Volt’s 40-mile range will only take you to work and back, so long as you have access to a charging station during the day. Sure, you can fall back on the Volt’s gas-powered engine, but the car’s raison d’être is its efficient electric engine. Worse off is the Nissan Leaf, which does not have a combustion engine as backup. Once your Leaf runs out of juice, your backup takes the form of a cell phone to call a tow service. And 80 miles of claimed range, which realistically will be closer to 65, will not take you on a road trip. That Tesla I mentioned offers the best range with a 300-mile spread per charge, but take a gander at its price tag: 100 grand will demolish the average consumer’s wallet.

Tesla-Model-S-Signature-Red

The good news is that alternatives to fuel have finally started to garner the recognition they need. The bad news is that the limitations in battery technology and unwieldy price tags that make electric cars unviable for most of us. My suggestion is to stick it out and wait for positive advancements in both departments within the coming years.

Safety

Lane-Departure

Today, cars are parking themselves, notifying drivers when they’ve drifted into another lane and detecting potential collisions. Ford’s new Focus uses a system of long-range sensors that actually identify other objects like neighboring cars while controlling the steering wheel to parallel park. The GMC Terrain comes equipped with a 14fps camera that monitors your driving path to sense when the vehicle is departing its lane. The system can also trigger a warning light when you’re tailgaiting another vehicle, and the SUV will precharge its brakes upon sensing an imminent collision.

Mercedes showed a video during its CES keynote that emphasized connected cars that “talk” to each other. So if one Mercedes car encountered a road hazard, it would relay the message to all nearby compatible Mercedes to warn drivers of the potential danger. GM showed advancements in airbag technology at their Detroit plant including side-curtain protection and millisecond deployment times. And some cars currently on the road can even detect drowsy drivers by sensing erratic driving behaviors.

Since it’s difficult to find a car without top notch crash safety ratings these days, manufacturers need to compete in other areas. Intelligent technology is the natural next step up, and all of these safety implementations are technology-driven. This is another milestone along the road to the “Smart Car” — the car that may one day handle all of our driving tasks while we sit back and watch The Office on our 17-inch, 4K-resolution dashboard-mounted monitors.

Outlook

Mercedes Concept (CES 2012) 001

As time marches on, we can expect to see the merging of the automotive and consumer tech industries into one unified highway. Trips to the mechanic will be replaced by trips to the lithium-ion battery specialists. Instead of Bruno and Sons Auto Repair tuning up your transmission, Best Buy will send the Geek Squad out to reconfigure your car’s computer brain. Battery technology will improve, electric vehicle prices will drop and our dependence on oil will dwindle — it’s the inevitable future. Cars will also continue to grow smarter and more connected.

But all of this comes at a price. Technology is great. Technology is smart. A good portion of humans are not all that smart. It’s easy to imagine the near-future scene of an accident where the police look inside a flipped Cadillac Escalade to see Angry Birds cued up on the dash LCD. Oodles of touch-screen controls will lead to oodles of rear-endings. Just look at what a smartphone in the hands of a dumb driver has done to our society. Technology will continue to pollinate the future of the automobile, but the costs might be deadly.


Mike Perlman

Mike Perlman grew up in Nintendo Land and developed a relationship with all things electronic and nerdy early on in his childhood career. Today,...

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