Getting Smart About Getting Around
by Robin Hegg
In the future, upgrading your car may involve downloading a software upgrade instead of taking a trip to the dealership. From synching seamlessly with your smartphone to doing the driving itself, smart cars are the future of automobiles and the future starts now.
Car manufacturing is beginning to sound more and more like computer and smartphone design, with hardware and software becoming the focus. New cars are already being designed with the hardware manufacturers need for current smart car technology and technology that’s expected to become available in the future. For example, in 2014, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class was designed with sensors to judge the distance to cars ahead of it and cameras to read road signs, despite the fact that it wasn’t yet ready to make use of them. If cars have the necessary hardware, new technology can become available through software upgrades, much like how a smartphone’s capabilities can be expanded with a new update.
Current smart cars are allowing drivers to use their car much like they would their smart phone—to navigate, send text messages, listen to music, and more—all directly from the car itself. In fact, the two biggest smartphone operating systems now have systems designed for cars—Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. These systems are familiar to iPhone and Android phone users and can synch seamlessly with drivers’ phones. Other car manufacturers are developing their own software specific to their cars.
Beyond giving cars the ability to more seamlessly give us information and entertainment, smart car technology offers the possibility of allowing cars to communicate with one another, scan their environments, take over certain driving functions, and even drive themselves. All these developments could make driving safer, decrease traffic, and make cars more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.
United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has stated that connecting all cars in the United States could cut non-alcohol-related accidents by as much as 80 percent. Volvo is working to develop cars that can share dangerous road conditions and cold weather hazards with one another. In February 2015, Britain’s Transport Minister Claire Perry announced the launch of four trials of semi-autonomous vehicles. An autonomous shuttle will be tested in the Greenwich of London, and a driverless pod prototype will be tested in central England. Perry called driverless cars, “very good for road safety,” saying, “Right now 93 percent of accidents are caused by driver error.”
According to an August 2014 report from the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, smart cars with the ability to communicate with each other and roadside equipment could save 420 million barrels of oil over 10 years. Other improvements to traffic infrastructure, such as coordinating traffic to avoid traffic jams, could save an additional 117 million barrels of oil over the same period. Simply by outfitting 1,500 vehicles in its fleet with internet connections and GPS devices. The Smithsonian Institution was able to cut the vehicles’ consumption by more than half. The development of more detailed maps and navigation software that could account for the slope of roads could help save fuel by calculating more energy-efficient routes to destinations.
Carmakers and technology companies are working hard to develop autonomous, self-driving cars. These cars offer the possibility of providing transportation to those who may not otherwise be able to drive, like the elderly or the blind. They could also decrease the number of accidents (since it’s estimated that 94% of accidents are caused by human error), and decrease traffic jams. In 2012, IEEE predicted that by 2040, up to 75 percent of vehicles on the road will be autonomous. If all cars on the road were autonomous, traffic lights and signs may no longer be needed. In fact, drivers licenses might not be needed either. As of 2015, four states and the District of Columbia in the U.S. have passed legislation allowing driverless cars.
Google has been at the forefront of autonomous car development. They have equipped different types of cars with self-driving equipment. Google’s cars use a LIDAR system, which uses a laser beam to generate a three-dimensional map of the car’s environment. These cars have now been tested with great results.
Google has also created its own prototype of a driverless car, with no steering wheel or pedals. It presented a fully functioning prototype in December of 2014 and has begun testing them on the road. They plan to make these cars available to the public in 2020.
There is also talk of Google developing a RoboTaxi—a taxi-like vehicle that would be funded by advertising and could function like a new form a public transportation. The transportation company Uber is also reported to be developing driverless cars.
The increased demand on bandwidth that would come with mass vehicle-to-vehicle communication and Wi-Fi use presents a number of issues. Deciding which messages would override others and how bandwidth between can be shared is something that the FCC, car manufacturers, and internet providers are working on.
Smart cars also present new security issues. The idea of a smart car being hacked is a frightening one, since hackers could seize control of the car or track its movements. But while cars may be vulnerable to attacks, researchers have found that the hacks needed to access a vehicle’s computers were difficult and expensive, making them less appealing to hackers than smartphones and PCs. A hacker attack on cars would most likely be very targeted. Security companies are working to find vulnerabilities in smart cars so manufacturers can patch these issues before they can be exploited.
Smart car technology is developing quickly and offers up some very exciting pictures of what future transportation might look like. Car manufacturers are already making cars smarter and are working to make cars that will be ready when the technology is.