Hot Wired Wheels – Anticipating the Future

by rthieme on July 29, 1997

Hot Wired Wheels


Richard Thieme

Published on Web Ireland, Summer 1997

Your autombile, the Internet and you will soon be a seamless weld of three systems of information and energy. You’ll be slotted into an energy field like a card in a laptop.

Daimler-Benz is trotting out technology that they say will give us the “Internet on Wheels” in a few years. Their R&D department displayed “the Internet car,” with consoles that bring an office or home into the family sedan.

Others, like General Motors, are working in the same direction. Larry Howell, an executive with GM’s R&D division, recently outlined a comprehensive vision of the future.

“The vehicle is rapidly becoming an electronic device on a mechanical platform,” he said. Today we turn the key and unleash more computer power than the Apollo moon missions had. GM’s prototype cars have ten times as many microcomputers as today’s typical car and fifty times the computing power. Their smart car will connect to the smart house, the smart office, and the smart highway, and the Internet as we know it will be transformed into a MultiNet that mediates all forms of digital information.

The digital interface – computer, VCR, PDA – and now house, office, and car — is arbitrary, a form that shapes digital data into images or sound. Not only will cars contain interfaces for digital data, the entire vehicle will BE an interface for digital data. As will we human beings, slotted behind the wheel like a plug-and-play peripheral.

What can you expect from an Internet Car?

(1) Intelligent travel assistants.

Some vehicles now use GPS (Global Positioning System satellites) to pinpoint your location. A map shows where you are and a voice provides driving instructions.

Enhancement of that system will highlight the best routes, predict transit times, and locate restaurants, movies, and hotels, then allow you to make a reservation or buy tickets.

(2)Voice activated controls.

Upside. No more reaching for the radio to find a station, just say “WMAQ” and the radio finds it. No more fumbling for the light switch in the dark, just say “Brights” and the beam brightens.

Downside. Someone on the radio shouts “Brights.” If the Voice Recognition system works as well as the first Newton, you’ll say “Duh!” and the lights will “dim.”

(3) A front multi-media console in the Cyber-Mercedes governs navigation and keeps you updated as to traffic conditions, with a slot in the center armrest for personal devices — a smart card, for example, that brings data from the office or home.

Downside: Use of cellular telephones has already resulted in traffic accidents. Imagine a solo driver responding to voice mail, faxes, and a sudden command from a robovoice to “Left! Turn left!”

(4) The back seat of the Mercedes is more visual and interactive than the front console. Children play games, wearing headphones and using wireless keyboards or remotes. The monitor is built into the front seat headrest.

Downside. Everybody in the car is plugged into something or someone outside the car.

(5) Object detection and night vision provide collision warning and crash avoidance.

(6) From stand-alone human to team player.

As individual cars are integrated with ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) and AHS (Automated Highway Systems), the automobile as an emblem of independence will go the way of the stand alone desktop computer.

The days will come when automobiles NOT “network capable” will be banned from the highways. An automobile that a human being drives without guidance will be an remnant of the Age of Chaos rather than an image of freedom.

(7) You’ll never get lost again — even if you want to.

The technical term is “function creep,” when something is designed for one task but used for another.

The Intelligent Transportation System is justified by the pressure on our infrastructure and the need for safer, more efficient highways. “Where are you going to build more motorways?” an engineer asked. “We’re approaching maximum utilization. It’s smart highways or permanent gridlock.”

The American plan calls for gradually introducing highway technologies, desensitizing the public to ubiquitous electronic surveillance. A message board tells you that a highway is closed. You zoom through a toll booth without having to wait in line. You receive a wireless message on your console telling you to avoid an intersection where there’s been an accident. Who can argue with that?

Video surveillance of highways to monitor accidents and congestion adds a library of images to those taken by surveillance cameras in city centers. The scanner that reads your vehicle ID electronically as you whiz through a toll both also keeps a record. Those records have already been used in court. They have also been stolen and sold.

There are plenty of positives: a system that alerts emergency services in the event of an accident and pinpoints your location. Lock yourself out of your car? Use a cell phone to call central headquarters so a signal sent via satellite can unlock the door.

And semi-positives: your speed triggers a photograph of your license plate, over which a digital readout from a radar gun is superimposed. The fine arrives at your home before you do.

And negatives: what if you don’t WANT a record of your movements in a permanent file, not because you’re a criminal, but because the boundaries that ensure the dignity and autonomy of the individual are defined by a guarantee of privacy?

Modificaitons to standard equipment can be used to customize bugs.

A hacker tells me of a father who didn’t trust his daughter. He asked the hacker to modify the cell phone in the car to be an open mic. Then he added GPS so the car’s location was available at home. Whenever the car headed for the woods and Dad heard heavy breathing, he took off in hot pursuit.

Will you be comfortable knowing you’re a blip on a grid?

The shipping industry provides a case in point.

Many companies have satellite antennas on the roofs of the lorries’ cabs and computer consoles under the dash. Speed, fuel consumption, location are monitored. The fleet is overseen and directed from a central location. One executive told me the drivers are “grateful” for surveillance, citing a hijacked lorrie that was tracked through its signalling device.

But some truckers feel its changed recruiting in the industry.

“The nomads of the open road are disappearing. Drivers know they can be watched, their every move recorded. A different kind of driver is comfortable with that.”

Safety and efficiency means removing human beings from the equation. In a few years, we’ll be passengers on an automated highway with self-piloting vehicles. Movable cubicles connected by lans, wans and the Net into a virtual office slotted into the highway at maximum speeds.

Coming soon to a motorway near you.

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