Connected for a purpose

Are we finally seeing connected vehicles doing more with the connection than infotainment?

A few months ago, I rented a Toyota Prius and was driving it up the 101 when, predictably, I ran into a long stretch of mostly-stop-with-some-go traffic. I remember thinking at the time, “It’s too bad this thing didn’t see this traffic jam coming; it could have topped off the battery and I could be motoring through this bumper-to-bumper on much more efficient electric drive.” Instead, I entered the traffic with the battery relatively depleted and ended up running the engine a bunch even though I was only going 5 mph.

Then last week, I was getting my car worked on and saw this sign in the waiting room:


That was cool because it was the first time I had seen an auto manufacturer (in this case, Mini) using externally obtained data to actually improve how the car operated instead of using it for some lame in-dash “experience.” It got me thinking.

Too much of the emphasis in the “connected car” market so far has been about staying in touch with your Facebook friends while you’re driving. There may be stupider uses of technology than that, but no examples spring readily to mind. At a recent conference, an executive at a major auto manufacturer described his company’s efforts to digitize their line-up like this: “We’re basically wrapping a two-ton car around an iPad.” First off, no car needs to be two tons anymore. The idea that manufacturers are spending R&D dollars to put your Twitter stream in the dash instead of making your car weigh 1,000 pounds so it can get 200 mpg viscerally rankles. Second, if I want an iPad, I’ll carry an iPad. Automobiles should provide efficient, safe, and comfortable transportation, and there are plenty of opportunities to use connectivity to improve those three priorities. In this case, the low-hanging fruit of infotainment just feels empty.

(As an aside, if you, too, think cars should be much more efficient, and that efficiency is more of a priority than making your car speak your Tweets to you, read Ingenious, by Jason Fagone).

But, back to that predictive drive train. Your automobile’s automatic transmission, with your GPS whispering in its ear, will be able to do for itself what I subconsciously do with my shifter: hold off on an upshift if another curve awaits at the exit of this one. Or, maybe it will do an early upshift if you’re about to head downhill while you’re “hyper-mileing.” Start thinking about it, and there are probably a lot of things you car could do for you if it knew where you were, where you were going, and what conditions looked like along the way.

If those are examples of how connectivity can improve efficiency, just think how it might improve safety. Cars already sense slippery spots on the road (most cars have some form of traction control now that constantly monitors wheel slippage); what if that information were shared with cars near you so they could warn their drivers, shift their transmission gears, or take other actions to prepare? Or if your car were simply aware of the cars around it and computing likely threats to your well-being? Cars that don’t run into each other don’t need to be heavy enough to protect themselves. We are just at the tip of the iceberg here. Maybe they’ll be talking about this at the Internet of Vehicles conference in Beijing later this year.

I’m not sure how much impact this specific example from Mini will have on drivability and efficiency, but it implies some really interesting things. First, it suggests that auto manufacturers are beginning to think beyond infotainment to other possible uses of networked information (bravo!). Second, and this is a biggie, it implies that information coming from the infotainment subnet of the car’s digital being is making it back across the wall to the engine management and transmission bits of the CAN bus. Data from the GPS unit in the dash is getting into the transmission’s decision logic. That strikes me as big.

This may explain why companies like Ford are moving away from infotainment systems developed on Microsoft or Android substrates and are shifting to the microkernal architecture of Blackberry’s QNX operating system. No one wants their dashboard to blue screen, but it’s not the end of the world if it is just playing your Pandora station and reading you Tweets. But if it’s sending signals to your engine and transmission, a greater level of reliability is required. It turns out that it’s easier to add a slick visual interface to a robust real-time embedded system than it is to add partitioned reliability to monolithic systems.

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