The media car

Aug 14, 2007

Let me tell you what cars will be like in five or ten years. :)

Of course, I have no idea. Neither do you, or any of the manufacturers. But the manufacturers are building it as we speak. And it's fun to guess.

Why, and the main idea

I drive around a lot, both short and small distances. Sometimes I spend two or three days in a row in my car, using all its features and cursing the ones that aren't around. (I've praised my Ford Focus and its integrated console system previously, but there's one thing that sucks: it doesn't have ambient light sensor, and the dashboard and LCD brightness controls are separate. So I must manually adjust the brightness between "night" and "day" mode, whereas it should actually reconfigure itself according to the ambient light level, as my expectations don't change and I want to maintain a fairly constant relative brightness level.)

So yeah... on one hand I drive a lot, on the other hand I've now been working in the IT and communications industry for a while. So I figured I'd do a thought experiment and go... "so... if I take all I know by now about my work specifically and also the world and its current trends in general, and try to throw out the stuff that doesn't matter, and expand the one that does, and aggregate it all into a four-wheeled moving thing in the form of a passenger car, what would it be like?" And that's all this is, just a thought experiment. And a prediction. Let's come back to this in five years and see where I was wrong.

If you bother to read no further, then here's the main idea. Instead of a vehicle, driving a car will be an open sharable media experience. We will all become "motion producers and consumers", in public or private form, exactly as we will see fit ourselves. Instead of a whole bunch of anonymous individual movements on the road, the experiences of all cars and drivers will blend into a larger dynamic group community, consumable by other drivers as well as others that are off the road. And for the lack of a better term, I call it "media car". I could also call it "car 2.0", but all 2.0 things sound stupid and I'd better avoid that name. And it's related a lot to media, hence the media car.

Yep. It sounds posh. And empty. So... I tried to analyse this across more meaningful categories. You could surely do different categories, as a lot of this is overlapping, but here's simply what came to my mind first.

Hardware

The "core car hardware", or the parts directly to do with driving and powering, will not change much. Massive amounts of engineering have gone over the past hundred years into steering, combustion, safety, seat comfort, dashboard readability and everything else we know about cars. This will see gradual improvements, but nothing revolutionary. The biggest change will be in the source of energy. We used to have just gasoline-powered cars. Today we already have hybrids and hydrogen research. There will also be new energy sources. So there will be a change about how cars are powered and refueled, but that's about it and the driving experience will be pretty much the same regardless of the fuel.

There will be a change regarding media hardware, though. All cars will have 360 degress external video cameras, as well as internal cameras. (Think current rear parking cameras and expand it.) All cars will have GPS or equivalent positioning capability. These will all be used for purposes outlined below.

There will be several layers of car hardware. First, there will be what I call "core driving" -- steering, acceleration/brake, safety (ABS etc). These will be controlled with devices similar to today. On top of "core driving", there is another layer of hardware and applications that are used to enhance the driving experience and provide safety, comfort and entertainment. There will be a clear and safe separation between these layers, but some of the underlying layers (ABS and other safety equipment) that have so far been closed, will be open to higher hardware and especially software layers for entertainment, statistics and other purposes, a lot of the time in read-only format.

If you think about it, a car is an ideal media device. Everyone knows what a car is, and has driving stories to share. In mobile devices, antenna/coverage and power are always of great concern. These are easier to solve with cars -- external high-power antennas can be used, and a car, especially while driving but also when stationary, produces more than enough energy for most "media/radio" type of scenarios. Screen size is another concern for mobile devices -- in a car, you are surrounded with almost 270 horizontal degrees of space and also a lot of vertical space -- there's a lot of surface to make use of, just be smart about it and don't jeopardize driving safety.

Safety and driving

Sure, the core act of driving will remain the same, but there will be massive aids to it. For example, imagine a car with a big DVD screen that can display either downloadable content, or content "preloaded" on a DVD or similar local media. One of the things this car can do, similarly to computer car games, is to give you actual usage, driving and safety lessons within the specific environment of that car. A driving school can only go so far and meet the requirements mandated by law so that you wouldn't get killed on the streets or kill others. But no driving school will be able to teach you all the nuances of rapidly evolving car technology and controls and features. (I had been driving my Focus for more than a year when I found out that the weird-looking compartment attached to the ceiling left of me wasn't an airbag -- it was the sunglass holder.)

Currently, all this information is provided in car manuals. My Focus has hundreds of pages of it. I'm a diligent person and read it once, but I don't remember most of it. Having this available in a more interactive audio-video format would make sure that more people see and understand this info.

Sounds too abstract? Here's how it would look like: when you buy a new car and sit in it for the first time and turn on the ignition, the LCD screen lights up and a virtual assistant (say "Alice") greets you. "Hi, and welcome to your new Model X from Y Industries! I'm here to help you get to know your car and learn its safety and entertainment features as conveniently as possible. You may want to take a short drive now, and that's fine. Please reactivate me as soon as you've found a convenient spot away from traffic, and I'll tell you more about your new car's controls."

Such tutorial could be responsive to actual user input. Like if it tells you to flip a switch ("your windshield wipers have three modes: off, on, and automatically adjust to rain/snow... here's what you need to do: flip lever X"), it can verify if you actually did it, and provide feedback. This would be useful to simply familiarize drivers with car controls when stationary, but it could also be used for advanced driving training, like teaching about the effects of ABS and other safety features. ("Please find a part of road or an isolated strip that doesn't have traffic. Make sure rain or snow falls. Now, accelerate to about 50 kph, make sure the car goes straight and doesn't turn left or right, and push the brake pedal down hard. You'll feel some clacking. Don't worry -- that's the Anti-Block System, or ABS for short. Its job is to help you stop in a shorter distance and thus help reduce the risk of accidents. Some pedal resistance and clacking sound is normal.")

Currently, a car is an isolated system. THe manufacturer doesn't know much about what's happening to a car or its systems, and neither has the user a record of car's life. Some warning lights just light up sometimes and either require user action (close rear left door; General Failure -- contact manufacturer ASAP). The media car will have a much richer record of its life that's available to both the user and manufacturer online. There will be sensors for all parts that require monitoring and servicing, and when there's a need for action, either the manufacturer contacts the user proactively or the car will prompt user without need for manufacturer input. This also works together with the abovementioned GPS sensors, taking in account regional requirements. ("We see that you're approaching a snow-chain area. During this part of the year, snow-chains are mandatory in 10 kilometers. You don't seem to have snow chains installed -- please contact service station X, in three kilometers to your right.") For driver, this helps to keep the car in good health and in compliance with all the requirements. For manufacturer, it helps to collect statistics for cars (which parts wear out more often, in which regions do people actually drive this model) and thus make future improvements.

There will be biometrics sensors. A breathalyzer test is mandatory and a car will not start up if someone tries to start it in intoxicated state. Authorities might also be alerted. There will also be pulse, blood pressure and eye movement sensors to detect anomalies in driver health, such as possible cardiac failure or falling asleep. The media car will react to these as appropriate, either warning the driver ("I see you're falling asleep. Please pull over at resting station X, in seven kilometers to your right, and get some rest and a snack") or in extreme cases such as cardiac failure, automatically and safely stoppping the car.

All the car and driver health information will be recorded, together with last five minutes' video feed from internal and external cameras. This will be available to user-controlled software applications for later use, but it's also recorded to a sealed "black box", available to authorities in case of a possible accident.

Navigation

People currently use a lot of external navigation aids like Garmin, TomTom etc. This is because the integrated systems are sold as options and overpriced and they suck -- they are too rigid and inflexible, e.g not too easily updatable. In some markets, too few are sold and the resellers are not aware of database update capabilities. So the standalone devices are there to simply close a temporary gap.

Still, the future lies with integrated systems that are within the car's environment and cooperate with the rest of the controls. For example, voice guidance needs to work nicely with the rest of the car's audio system and turn down the radio volume for the period of the voice instruction. And the car console has much larger space for display and buttons available than the PDA-sized standalone navigation units that you need to somehow attach to your windshield or console.

So there will be easily updatable maps and databases and voice guidance that mixes nicely with the rest of the audio. Not much new there.

What's new, though, are two things. First, there will be recording. Not only will you be able to see where to go, but the car will record your whole route together with the car's vital stats (speed, time) and especially fuel consumption. So you will be able to see hwo much energy you spent (and how much CO2 you produced and now need to offset... I don't know how big this CO2 thing will be in five years, but energy efficiency will be hot in any case). And if you drive too aggressively and spend too much fuel, the car will suggest you ways to save fuel and money (see above -- tutorial discussion).

Secondly, the car will have a presence on your computer desktop. First, to view the above recording of routes, but secondly, also to integrate with your calendar and suggest you when to get going, taking in account current traffic, road repairs and weather. ("You have a meeting at 2pm with John at 53rd St and Borat Avenue. Traffic is congested in 53rd today, and there's heavy snowfall outside. You need to get going in 5 minutes and here's the optimal fastest route.")

Entertainment

Car manufacturers make nice entertainment hardware (speakers) but they don't know too much about entertainment software and media and don't need to -- the best they can do is provide interfaces for other media devices to plug in to the car audio system. (Building on the "ideal media device" theme, there's plenty of room in the car to place excellent speakers and provide good audio.) Current iPod integration is a good example -- you plug in your iPod and the car system then shows you song and other info (also could show video to those who are not driving) and you can control it from the wheel.

Communication

There won't be too much Internet in the cars. You won't be able to surf the web -- the only thing you can do is update the car's software, both core driving and navigation maps/databases. There will be interfaces like wifi and maybe 3G and others and you can join the wifi network at your home or office, but there won't be full surfing and browsing if you're the driver. For other passengers, maybe.

You can already use Bluetooth so that the car is a "headset" for your mobile phone and you can speak using the integrated speakers and microphone. But its UI is currently limited -- if someone calls you, you see the number but not the name/picture. This will gradually improve, but it won't be revolutionary compared to what you can already do with Bluetooth integration.

The interior video cameras won't only be for recording into the "black box" -- you can also make video phone calls with them. This will be of special interest to the busy executive community who drive on the back seat and have their own driver. It's not safe to videocall while driving, but it's fine on the back seat, where you can keep in touch with your family and thus talk with them in a more rich way than a simple audio call would be.

Community

One change in the entertainment space is that whereas currently, you are only consuming media while driving, then in the media car you will also be producing. Think a "car podcast" (carcast?) that documents a trip, mixing map/navigation, car stats, driver biometrics, internal and external video camera feeds. Watching a two-day trip in its entirety is boring, but there will be software on your computer that you can use to easily highlight the top moments of the trip, showing the best moments in full and perhaps compressing others into a "timeshifted" recording, so that a ten hours' trip fits into twenty seconds of fast-motion video.

There will be community efforts, both voluntary and municipality- or government-mandated, to capture the driving and especially green/efficiency info from cars and broadcast it online to compete across individuals and communities across who's "greenest". Think Nike and iPod integration -- you'll be able to see "how green" you have been in your driving and how you rank against neighbors and other towns. Perhaps at some later point, the government will mandate collecting this info to get better info about the impact that driving has on its particular environment.

The camera feeds can be used by communities, either voluntarily or in a government-mandated format, to identify and capture traffic and parking offenders. Every driver has had moments when some retard has done a dangerous maneuver or parked irresponsibly. Often, we just go "that bastard!", but always-on video feeds help to actually bring the worst offenders to justice or to just publicly shame them.

The above driving podcast (carcast, drivecast) will be a great way to capture your daily and travel experiences. Many of us spend time driving, but often it's a nuisance and a daily chore that we don't acknowledge. The media car helps to actualize these experiences and bring them into community consciousness and exchange experiences.

Systems architecture

There will be a "car bus", a standardized bus and API to access the car hardware (GPS, cameras, car stats and driver biometrics) for different applications. Many of the above applications will be produced by independent vendors, as they can innovate faster than car manufacturers. All the manufacturers need to do is to provide an API and access layer. Initially, this will be competitive across manufacturers, but whoever gets it right will either publicly standardize it, or start commercially licensing it to others and thus become filthy rich.

Since some of the applications may cause driving dangers -- even a read-only API can be overloaded, or to prevent driving damage, some of these applications may be used only when the car is stationary -- there will be certification of applications, but the market will eventually be open.

Marketing and positioning

All of the above will have an impact on how cars are marketed and positioned. To date, it's largely still focused on driving, and some abstract "lifestyle" and "brand" things. Cars are still used purely for driving, or as status symbols. But the above means that the "media" positioning will overshadow these criteria and customers will choose cars according to their media and interactivity richness. Manufacturers will compete on this, because it makes economic sense -- the media staff is actually cheap to add to a car, when comparing to the rest of the manufacturing cost and considering the ever-decreasing price of media gadgets and electronics. So it doesn't cost much to add these media capabilities (a lot of it regarding e.g car stats is already there in the "internal computer", but currently it's locked and not exposed), but it will be a differentiating factor and something your competition doesn't have.

There will be special segmenting and marketing of vehicles to the current youth, the YouTube generation, the people who are shooting videos with their mobile phones and broadcasting this on YouTube, MySpace etc. If you think that the above media car concept is redundant and "nobody needs it", think of the people who said the same about YouTube. (I used to, too. But I don't any more for a long time.)

Disclaimer

I have no idea if the above will be true or not. I surely don't have any "inside info" from any manufacturer on this, but I'm sure they're working on it. Maybe I'll even help to build some of this somewhere if things turn out that way. Who knows.