With more than a billion cars on the road worldwide, whatever technological transformations affect the next generation of new cars will ripple through roads, buildings, and human habitats. This is especially true in urban settings.
Beginning in 2010, with small scale experiments in Los Angeles, software development firm Streetline began helping municipalities better manage their parking spots. Their motivation was straightforward. As noted in a study by Donald Shoup, a professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, around thirty percent of cars in the traffic flows studied were cruising for parking—adding to pollution and contributing to road rage incidents. As he puts it, a great deal of traffic congestion is caused not by people trying to get from point A to B, but by vehicles looking for a spot to park.
Streetline built a service to address this problem. For consumers in Streetline service areas, the company offers a smartphone app that lists open parking spots, checks meter rates, gives directions to the spot, sends alerts when your meter is about to expire, and gives you directions back to your car. If you’re considering buying a new electric car, this technology can even guide you to nearby charging spots.
For city managers wanting to get smarter about transit behavior, the benefits of such systems are readily apparent, reducing traffic and pollution simultaneously. Streetline and similar apps operate like Uber’s surge pricing, backed by similar analytics. When a car equipped with onboard intelligence hunts for a parking spot, it’s matching the car’s algorithmic prowess against the smart city’s pricing and availability apps. Plus, onboard intel can integrate real time calculations that incorporate fuel cost, depletion rate, and the owner’s assessment of an event’s importance.
Today’s connected cars also use another tool seemingly out of science fiction: Artificial Intelligence. In-vehicle AI can be powered not only by onboard processors, but supplemented by cloud computing. Think IBM’s Watson or Amazon Machine Learning in your car: observing you, observing your environment, connected to smart city sensors, and ready to respond to your commands in your own language.
IBM recently posted a demonstration of their smart traffic management system that implements a simulated vehicle, communicates with other connected vehicles, and processes messages from emergency services, examines terrain, and even incorporates sentiment from other drivers. In March of this year, BMW showed off its BMW Vision Next 100 vehicle by featuring an AI assistant it calls Companion. Nuance Dragon Drive is also available with some BMW vehicles, a natural language voice system that combines both onboard and cloud computation to maximize ease of use and encourage hands-free operation. The Nuance technology is available in the BMW 7-series, as well as select Mercedes models.
Towards A Fully Wired City
In the nearly fully-wired city of Songdo, South Korea, every car has a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag and sends real time data to a municipal monitoring unit that aggregates and analyzes data for planning and redistribution back to residents. Parking in Songdo is mostly below-ground, with reserved spots for carpools and zero emission vehicles. Even within the underground garages, sensors guide vehicles to unoccupied spots. Another example of Songdo’s cutting-edge tech: the city may not need smart trucks, at least not for garbage collection. Songdo planners expect to eventually eliminate garbage trucks by sensing activity in local containers, transporting trash through underground pipes, and using the garbage for distributed power generation.
Other cities are also chasing the smart-driving trend. In Hamburg, Germany, the Hamburg Port Authority and Cisco built a smart road at the city’s docks. What makes the road smart is the integration of automated systems for light, traffic, and vehicles. Similarly, a project in the UK with Jaguar Land Rover uses the auto company’s MagneRide platform to identify road hazards and send that data in real time to municipal road crews and other drivers. Think of it as Facebook for cars, with data being exchanged from vehicle to vehicle without human intervention.
Tracking Your Every Move
For some time now, Progressive Insurance has offered discounts to drivers who install its Snapshot, a device for measuring what it terms “your safe driving habits.” Now, skip ahead a decade or two. Smart cars will have the capability for doing much more. They’ll be gathering data that can be used to avoid accidents and also to collect actuarial data. When accidents do occur, there will be much more data for lawyers, jurors and insurers to work with—including onboard and surveillance video.
Individualized driver profiles, produced through Machine Learning and via personal preferences, can not only serve as “his and hers” driving preferences, but will be portable across vehicles in the home garage, as well as in rental cars. Such profiles, built over long periods of time by collecting individualized Big Data about drivers, will help future engineers build cars better matched to actual driver scenarios. They will also be used by car buyers to match profiles to new cars, and to adapt more rapidly to the features in the new vehicles.
Tech That Won’t Break the Bank
Don’t worry if a state-of-the-art ride isn’t in your budget this year—there’s plenty of awesome tech available across the auto spectrum. For those of us who dread the term “blind spot” on a busy street, Honda offers a range of vehicles—from the 2016 Accord to the popular CR-V—equipped with its LaneWatch feature, a camera that gives a driver a clear view of the passenger side of the vehicle, a great way to avoid surprises when switching lanes. And it’s hands-free: LaneWatch automatically turns on when you click the right-hand turning signal. Plenty of other SUVs offer similar video features to give drivers a fuller picture of their vehicle’s surroundings—try comparing models to see what best suits you.
Auto makers are more dedicated than ever to addressing user experience in their new models. Does nighttime driving stress you out? Try a car equipped with automatic high-beams, which switch to regular headlight mode when cars approach you head-on to avoid blinding other drivers, and then back to highbeams once those cars have passed. Other automatic features seek to take the stress out of driving and keep you safe at the same time: automatic braking systems, which use front sensors to detect potential high-speed collisions and begin braking for you; rear impact alert systems notify you when a vehicle is approaching from the side while your car is in reverse, to cover you while you’re backing out of a tight space; and automatic climate control systems, which store your settings and automatically adjust, so drivers can keep their hands on the wheel. Whatever you’re looking for in your new car, it’s always a good idea to do your research—the name of the game in the tech world.
Much More To Come
The future holds the promise of many more automotive advances, such as self-driving cars that change how we think about the act of driving. While we wait for that revolution, more modest goals can be realized with features being slowly rolled out in new cars on the market today. Who knows? Perhaps when you buy your next car, you won’t have to wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles for tags. You’ll pay with a smartphone app and an electronic token will instantly be wirelessly transferred to your vehicle once you take possession. Now that’s progress.
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