By Niall McKay in Silicon Valley, Mon Aug 21 00:00:00 GMT 2000
Think of a mobile-networked device and you will probably think of something that you can fit in your pocket -- a personal organizer, a cell phone, an MP3 player -- but the next big thing in connectivity is the car.
Right now automotive companies are creating a new generation of vehicles that integrate personal computing, the Internet, and wireless communications. Cars that know where they are and where they are going- cars that are able to put you in touch with your family as quickly as you can say "call mama" and cars that can tell the vehicle behind you to "back off buddy." There are even projects to develop cars that can be driven remotely or can drive all by themselves.
"We have autonomous vehicle trials running in Germany where the car's navigation and control systems operate the vehicle without any assistance from the driver," says Fred Heiler, manager of technology communications for Daimler-Chrysler's Mercedes USA.
Indeed, the technology gleaned from these trials -- systems, that can for instance, keep a safe driving distance behind other vehicles -- will be used to improve current cruise control technology in the near term, according to Heiler.
A Logical Step
But these days, an automobile company without a networked vehicle strategy is like a retailer without an Internet strategy. General Motors has created OnStar -- a service that will give users voice-activated access to e-mail and information services such as stock quotes and weather forecasts. Ford has teamed up with Qualcomm to create a similar service dubbed Wingcast, and Mercedes has TeleAid- a service that merges a CD-ROM based mapping system with voice technology to give users a speaking road atlas. Clarion, the in-car audio manufacturer's offering is called the Auto-PC -- a device that fuses the world of computing and car entertainment systems.
Indeed such services are slated to take off. According to the Washington-based consulting company, The Strategic Group, revenues from in-car information services will grow from $40 million in 1999 to $1.7 billion by 2004 with more than 11 million subscribers.
That is not to say that there are not problems with the technology. For one thing, using a keyboard and mouse in a car is obviously impractical and voice recognition technology is still not very good. For another, in the United States, the world's largest automobile market, the wireless data infrastructure is patchy and a broadband wireless infrastructure is practically non-existent.
"The wireless infrastructure is not robust enough to support a lot of the applications that we would like to offer such as online road maps," says Jack Debiafio, director of engineering and technology for Clarion. "We are waiting for the third generation networks to be deployed throughout the States."
As a stepping stone, both Clarion and Mercedes are using CD-ROM road maps that integrate Global Positioning System technology.
Mercedes is also working with mobile phone manufacturers such as Nokia to build systems that use the short-range personal wireless networking protocol Bluetooth in its next generation of communications systems. That way, drivers need not fool around with in-car mobile phone docking stations. The car will retrieve the address book seamlessly from the mobile phone in the brief case or pocket. Similarly, Clarion wants to use Bluetooth to provide seamless integration with devices such as MP3 players so that users can load up their favorite songs from their personal computer at home and the in-car audio system will retrieve the information automatically.
However, many believe that the killer application for the networked vehicle will be integrating Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation systems with online road maps and traffic management systems. That way, in theory at least, drivers need never get lost or stuck in a traffic jam again.
In fact, in Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, trials are already underway to provide these online traffic management systems to the public. The system can be used to reroute commuters away from traffic jams or road accidents. All the driver need do is tell the car its destination and it will work out the route.
"Not getting lost is a relatively narrow use of the technology," says Clarion's Debiafio. "For example, I pass about 40 gas stations on the way home each evening. So I could use such a system to find me the cheapest gas en route."
According, to Debiafio, Clarion is also working with Wireless Applications Protocol providers to develop shopping applications so that drivers need only say "I need an oil change" and the Auto-PC find a suitable garage while on route.
Of course, all auto-manufacturers are developing systems for remote diagnostics so that dealerships can retrieve the service history with the click of the mouse.
While retrieving email in your car on route may be useful, it barely begins to tap the potential of the technology.
Mercedes Trucks, for example, is working on an electronic drawbar system that can lock vehicles into a type of cruise control system. Using radar technology to keep a safe driving distance between the vehicles and wireless communications to control the acceleration and braking of the trucks, one driver could control a whole convey. Interestingly, such remote override control systems also have security applications. Police could, if a car was reported stolen, automatically pull the vehicle over to the side of the road.
Daimler-Chrysler's Jeep division has developed a wireless peer-to-peer networking system that will enable cars to exchange insurance details automatically following an accident. "At some stage the peer-to-peer networking system could be developed to forewarn drivers or a crash, say, ten car lengths ahead," says Paul Chou, manager of automotive solutions for IBM Research.
Then at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, scientists are developing systems that watch the driver's behavior so that it can assess when it is safe to give the driver certain information.
Why? Because the introduction of wireless communications could be a mixed blessing for drivers, according to IBM's Chou.
"The amount of data, information services, mapping, and control systems for the vehicle will proliferate when automobiles become networked," he says. "So it's important to build information or workflow management system that will not distract the driver."
Imagine trying to find a parking space on a busy city road while your car is chattering away some nonsense about needing an oil change.
Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute is developing a system called the eye-tracker. This will track the eye movements of the driver and assess weather or not they are tired, stressed or busy with the task of driving. The Eye-tracker will then be integrated with the car's command and control, communications, and navigation systems so that the right information can be presented at the right time.
Of course, the down side to all this new technology is that it will transfer the control from the driver to the on-board computer system. One could imagine the nightmare scenario where your car will simply refuse to go anywhere until you take it to the dealership for a service, or perhaps even worse, where your car will make a decision in a head on collision to crash into small Honda rather than the five ton Sports Utility Vehicle.
Niall McKay is a San Francisco-based writer and journalist who covers science and technology. He is a contributing editor to the Red Herring Magazine, a columnist for the Irish Times and writes for the Financial Times, Wired Magazine, Salon, and the New York Times.