By Neal Pollack
In many ways, we’re living in a golden era of the automobile.
Powertrain technologies do things that we couldn’t have even imagined five years ago. Cars have everything from 12-cylinder monster engines that could melt the paint off the side of a ship to hyper-efficient hybrid drivetrains that net unheard-of gas mileage numbers. Safety features have never been more efficient or plentiful, interiors more luxurious or more comfortable. Alternative energy vehicles, good ones, are now a legitimate part of the marketplace, not a shunned afterthought.
So why then does tech lag so far behind? Most modern cars are saddled with confusing, dated, second-rate infotainment systems, hard-to-figure out GPS functions, and app stores that few customers use and even fewer want. Manufacturers might as well be offering an in dash Commodore 64 or a Sega Dreamcast.
EVERYTHING NEW IS OLD
Cars get produced on a five-year-development cycle. This works fine for engines or safety systems, which have been in the pipeline all along, but doesn’t work, at all, for tech. “Five years ago, when a lot of those systems were designed, it was a different time,” said Derek Kuhn, VP at QNX Systems, which designs software platforms for Audi and GM, among other car companies. “That’s forever in Internet years.”
As a result, drivers get stuck with bad tech that predates the flip phone, trapping the so-called “car of the future” in the not-so-distant past. “These are bad computers because they’re so old,” said John Fremont, EVP at Chaotic Moon Studios. “They’re picking the cheapest components based on current technology and putting them in cars five years down the road.”
Nevertheless, car tech is advancing, though not always across manufacturer lines. The future will arrive occasionally. For instance, the new Audi interior will no longer have a “center stack” entertainment system. Everything will operate digitally in the driver’s direct sightline, from navigation systems to safety information to music options, which will be activated by voice commands or the press of a button.
Wireless in-car services will also be arriving soon. GM recently announced pricing for vehicles across its line, from the highest-end Cadillac to the entry-level Chevy Spark. Each will come equipped with a 4G LTE wireless hotspot, meaning that the car’s tech capability will evolve throughout its working life. “We view it as an integrated part of the vehicle, not as an add-on,” said John McFarland, Marketing Director for GM’s Global Connected Consumer Group.
In early March, Apple also announced CarPlay, an in-dash software system that will allow drivers to fully integrate Maps, Siri and other essential smartphone functions, all tied to a button on the steering wheel. Six automakers — Jaguar, Volvo, Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes and Ferrari — will be adopting it soon, with others to follow.
Most of the real innovations are coming in the realm of safety. The new Infiniti Q50 can steer itself for long stretches, as can the Acura RDX. You can almost take a nap while driving the new Mercedes S-Class. Audi has developed in-dash cameras that can detect if the driver’s attention has strayed from the road. New Subarus automatically slam on the brakes if they sense a crash coming at up to 30 mph. Self-parking features have also become common.
But it’s taken a federal government initiative to really unite the carmakers under a common tech purpose. On February 3, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it would immediately begin taking steps to implement advanced vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication in all new light vehicles sold in the U.S. “Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the lifesaving achievements we’ve already seen with safety belts and air bags,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
On that day, a version of the “car of the future,” long prophesized, discussed and auditioned, became permanent reality. Within the next five years or so, all new cars made will operate on a private 5.9 gigahertz bandwidth that will also be baked into most smartphones. They’ll be hooked up to a private bandwidth, silently exchanging basic safety data, like speed and grid position, without our knowing. Alert systems will go off if danger is imminent, or even possible, since cars will exchange information ten times a second and will be able to detect threats from hundreds of yards away.
“This is allowing the cars to be nodes on a grid that share information,” said Jim Keller, Chief Engineer and Senior Manager for Honda R&D in the Americas. “These cars are just talking to each other. And unless there’s a conflict, you’ll never even know the system is working.”
The new NHTSA standards are so radical because they apply to, and integrate, every vehicle across every price level. They come out of a 13-year-old nonprofit federal government research project called the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership, or CAMP, with the participation of engineers from almost every major automaker. “All companies need to talk to each other,” Keller said. “BMW has to talk to Honda and Ford. It’s not going to work if we slowly start with Acuras and work out way down to a Honda Fit.”
Meanwhile, the rest of car tech remains somewhat stalled. Part of the problem, said Fremont, is that car manufacturers aren’t really controlling their technological future, depending instead on an antiquated system of tiered suppliers, many of them with their own ideas of how tech should move forward. The bureaucratic roadblocks are hard to overcome.
“The future is modular,” Fremont said. “If you look at Tesla, it’s a software car. That big screen can be easily swapped out with a newer, higher density screen. It’s not fighting against so many variables.”
ANOTHER FIVE YEARS TO GO?
The automotive tech lag will persist for a while, says Honda’s Jim Keller. It’s going to be 2019 or 2020 before all new vehicles are onboard with the new federal communication standards, and for decades to come, there will still be old cars on the road that aren’t part of the systems. “It’s going to take patience and commitment in the early years, because there won’t be a huge volume of cars to communicate with,” said Keller.
Eventually, though, it will happen. What will the world look like when it does? BMW is trying to envision that. Their new compact electric car, the i3, comes equipped with a full suite of up-to-date smartphone apps that can tell the driver where to find public charging stations. More importantly, it can inform drivers about traffic and give them the option of taking public transportation or, heaven forbid, walking instead.
“My hope for the future would be that the car companies figure out a way for national travel via something other than automobiles,” said Fremont. In other words, when thinking about the car of the future, we also have to think of a future without cars. “It’s a huge shift, but someone’s going to have to do it eventually.”