Meet your new smart device: Your car

My second column for Professional manager magazine, written in 2013

My generation long-since became sceptical of ITALS Tomorrow’s World ITALS-esque claims of how radical technology will very soon make our lives easier. X-ray glasses, tea-making household robots and a contraceptive pill for men? Anyone seen any of those down the shops? Thought not.

Yet one of these fabled never-never inventions is close at hand – the self-driving car. Volvo, Audi and Toyota are ploughing resources into motors that can drive themselves. Meanwhile, the likes of Google and Apple are looking very closely at how they can integrate their technology into cars. In many respects, the technology for these futuristic vehicles is mature.

We already have the radars and cameras that judge the distances to nearby vehicles and read road signs; algorithms that calculate whether a crash is in the offing or adjust adaptive cruise control settings; servos that control steering wheels and pedals; stop-start systems that cut ignition when the car comes to a halt.

The implications for safety and fuel economy are varied, but the potential to free up drivers’ time while on the road is obviously significant. A colleague once told me of a former boss who insisted that his employees were able to study and complete paperwork and conduct telephone calls all while at the wheel. While that’s obviously barking mad, it may not be for long.

So what do we need to make these road-borne offices a reality? Answer: data. The vehicles need to be able to receive, crunch and transmit huge amounts of data on traffic, location, speed, acceleration, and myriad other factors. There is no existing platform by which cars can send and receive vast quantities of information in this way. But connectivity is the next big thing in carmaking. It’s fair to say we’re heading for a paradigm shift in the way we build and use cars.

The modern car is close to being a movable communication device. Part-phone, part-computer, part-vehicle, it will take the initiative should circumstances demand it. The pan-European eCall initiative – designed to relay data to emergency services in the event of an accident, mirroring systems already offered by Volvo, Peugeot, Citroen and BMW – becomes a viable project with such connected cars.

Concepts such as pay-as-you-drive insurance – or road tax – become possible where real-time data can be transmitted direct from the car. Think cars that inform fleet managers when services are due – and whether breakdowns are imminent. Cars that feed back driver behaviour in real time, perhaps even to other cars on the road. Cars that can download software patches and upgrades in the way your smartphone or tablet might. It becomes difficult to predict where this might take us very quickly, but mobile service providers, satnav manufacturers, warranty providers, insurance companies, leasing companies and government treasuries will all be watching developments very closely.

The end point of all this is the car-as-smartphone. You won’t need to connect your wheels to your phone; your car will be your phone. Or tablet, or PC. I’ve sat, agog, in a Range Rover watching live television on the Jaguar Land Rover dual-TV screen, but that’s nothing compared to a car that is connected with the web, the car behind you, centralised weather and traffic stations; perhaps even your house.

By the end of the decade every new car that hits the road will have the ability to communicate with every other car on the road. Terabytes of data will be harvested every second on cars, drivers and roads. The ramifications are enormous, fluid and not necessarily easy to predict but, amid the plethora of possibilities, the connected car is the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle to creating a driverless world. And that’s one Tomorrow’s World-style forecast I’m happy to put my name to.

Tech five

Real-time satnav

Satellite navigation that can aggregate traffic reports have been around for a while, but the next generation of satnavs will use telemetry from other cars to construct best-bet routes in real time.

Driver assist

Designed to prevent an accident from happening in the first place – and mitigate the worst of an accident if it should prove unavoidable – technologies such as traction control, brake assist, ESP and ABS are making it harder to crash a modern car.

The seeing car

Many cars can currently park themselves, with only a modicum of human input, while others offer cruise control that adapts to the speed of the car in front. Volvo cars can tell if you’re wandering out of your lane, check your blind spot and even if you might be feeling drowsy.

Voice control

Make a phone call, ask your satnav to make a phone call for you, toggle media. Voice control currently means your attention needn’t waver while driving; in the future it could mean asking your car to take you home, tell your partner know you’ll be home late or pop the kettle on ready for your return.

The internet

Like electricity connecting up a grid, web access will join all the constituent parts together – feeding vital data on other roads and road users to navigation and driving systems that can make a self-driving car a viable prospect.

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