Every time you turn around, it seems like more and more new digital and electronic gear is being put into modern vehicles. We've come a long way in just a few short years — for example, just look at some of the most popular classic muscle cars of the 1970s. These models had very little fancy computer engineering under the hood, and none on the dashboard. Now, state-of-the-art designs that could be described as “artificial intelligence” are being pumped into our cars, trucks and SUVs at an astounding rate.
Hybrid and Digital Dashboards
Many of us are just now getting used to dashboards that feature digital displays for things like mileage, fuel supplies, and even speed and RPMs. You may be driving your first vehicle that puts these numbers into the kind of format that you see on your alarm clock, and adds helpful extras like real-time fuel economy and direction.
But now, research firm Frost and Sullivan has come out with a study that shows all new vehicle dashboards will come with at least some digital components by 2021, and that some 20% of these will be digital-only. That means no more speedometer or tachometer needle! Instead, you'll have something that looks like what they put into the DeLorean for the "Back to the Future" films in the 1980s. But will we want these needles back? Will they someday be considered a premium feature?
Just a couple of years ago, automakers like Honda and Toyota came out with the announcement of "electronic throttle" technology — instead of the age-old system where your accelerator goes to a wire that physically opens the throttle, today's designs often have a computerized system to give you the amount of juice that you need at any time, for example, merging on an entrance ramp. It may have been only a coincidence that these announcements roughly coincided with Toyota's now legendary "accelero-gate," where drivers accused cars of taking off without their consent. But there are legitimate concerns about the relative safety of decoupling the throttle from a physical system.
Backup Cameras and Other Helpers
Another key way that driving has changed is that more of us are staring at the dashboard while backing up, instead of looking over our shoulder to avoid hitting objects behind us.
Objectively speaking, backup cameras have to be safer, but not all drivers are used to them, and some just don't trust them. A lot of us find ourselves still doing a visual check, either because we distrust the angles and distances as shown on the camera, or out of a kind of instinctive superstition.
Along with backup cameras, you have things like lane assist, where sensors will tell you if you are going into someone else's territory. These features, too, can help with safety, but they're also controversial for buyers, because a lot of drivers like to think of themselves as capable of staying in the lane on their own. Same with automated parallel parking: to some drivers, this is great news, because no one can blame them for tapping vehicles to their front or back — "Hey, the computer did it! Not me!" But other drivers will feel slightly insulted as they just sit there and watch the computer park for them.
Features like these are part of a greater system that some experts refer to as "augmented reality" — it's the idea that instead of trusting our visual instincts, we’ll employ sensors to show vehicles where to go on the road. This type of technology is also likely to be part of the next generation of autonomous cars, where these little self-driven pods can join together on major freeways or busy main streets to automate that process of creeping lines of traffic that are so frustrating to human drivers. Until then, drivers will continue to struggle to understand some of these sensor-based systems.
We've already written about smart keys and the way they revolutionize vehicle ownership.
Like Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton in this Tech Page One column, many of us have really gotten used to the idea of having our car keys present and in hand for ignition. While the makers of smart keys purport them to be convenient, a radical change in habits can mean we might be losing our keys more often in the short term. Of course, there are now digital tracking devices we can put on the smart keys in case they get lost. In other words, we have sensors for our sensors.
The Engine Computer
Leave aside for a moment the fact that you can now diagnose things like airflow and fuel mix through the engine computer. Another way to think about this is that car makers can engineer all kinds of things into the vehicle’s electronic footprint, to change the ways that our cars work.
Not too many years ago, it was the stuff of urban legend that certain kinds of cars would simply shut down if they weren’t driven for a certain number of days. Now, we know for a fact that a lot of this type of technology is being put into the vehicles. For instance, differences in fuel mixture or catalytic converter output can cause a vehicle to stall or shut down. That doesn't mean the engine is incapable of working, it just means the auto maker has determined that you should get your car worked on. There are engine immobilizers for all kinds of situations: you don’t make your payments, or there’s a thief behind the wheel. There’s also the ignition interlock device, a similar kind of tool, but a pre-emptive one. What it all boils down to is that a computer has control over your car and you may not be able to just “start it up and drive” anymore.
What we can expect going forward is that these kinds of “robotic” changes will be a mixed bag. Some will be hailed as triumphs of modern convenience — some will be incredibly controversial. Each one should be considered according to its own merits… but many of us will never really let go of those days when our cars (and our toasters, refrigerators and dishwashers) weren’t computers, just machines.