We’re flying full speed towards a hideous Pontiac Aztec when collision mitigation takes over.
Red lights flash alarmingly on the head-up display as I jam the brake down as hard as I can, stopping dramatically close to the homely Walter White whip, tires screeching, ersatz Walter completely oblivious. “You weren’t actually doing anything at that point,” concedes Jeffrey Massimilla from the back seat, and he ought to know as program manager for CUE, Cadillac’s high tech infotainment system, “the car had already taken over to avoid a collision.”
Adaptive cruise control might sound innocuous enough, but it’s about as close as you can come to experiencing a self-driving car first hand. Before the near-collision, I’d been sailing down one of Atlanta’s many toll roads, test driving the new Cadillac ATS and chatting with Jeffrey, who suggested that I allow the car to bring itself to a complete halt at the approaching toll booth. For several miles, I’d had adaptive cruise control set at a healthy 65 mph, but was averaging more like 62 due to traffic. As the car directly in front of me slowed, the ATS would ease back, maintaining the distance I’d prescribed and keeping as close to 65 as safely possible. Every time a slower car moved out of the lane, the ATS would accelerate to my designated pace.
As we approach the tollgate, our lane backs up fast, and we start to slow down. I’m operating neither the brake nor the accelerator, letting the car manage those two function completely on it’s own. I am, however, still in command of steering and, with plenty of room to spare, I make a lane change and the car responds by accelerating as the path clears. Just as we’re about to reach 50 mph, the Aztec cuts into our lane some 100 feet ahead, rolling languidly across the asphalt, oblivious of our speedy approach— that’s when the Caddy’s crash mitigation system takes over, robot-like, braking the car more efficiently than any human can, avoiding what might have been a nasty wreck.
It’s an uncanny feeling, ceding control of something we take for granted, like driving, to a machine. On the one hand, had it been up to me, I wouldn’t have accelerated after changing lanes, which means getting cut off by the Pontiac would have been far less dramatic. On the other hand, collision mitigation is more effective than I could ever be and I certainly could have switched off adaptive cruise control when we began to slow in earnest. Still, it begs the question, how will technology change the way we drive?
One answer comes from imagining a future in which the errant Pontiac and my borrowed ATS could communicate with one another, telegraphing their moves to avoid potential collisions. “I think the most important thing is the connectivity, the actual wireless connection from the car to the outside world,” says Alfred Tom, Researcher and Investment Analyst at General Motors’ Silicon Valley outpost. Alfred is talking about a future in which your car can take stock of its surroundings, and respond accordingly. “It would take care to understand what all the public markers mean and where the pedestrians are…” Alfred explains, and I imagine how the ATS might have responded differently if adaptive cruise control could be made aware of things like toll booths. To get there, cars will need a better way to communicate. “The cellular networks may not be able to handle that because of all the congestion from Smartphone use and things like that.” Instead, Alfred suggests that the future of car connectivity might lie with “an alternative wireless connectivity technology called DSRC or digital short-range communication. It’s a separate frequency than typical cellular frequencies. It’s dedicated specifically to that type of communication. It’s [designed for] vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure data exchange.”
As Alfred went on to point out, the initial list of DSRC equipped vehicles on the road will be quite minimal, growing over time as the technology is adopted, and new cars replace older ones on the road— which puts the day when vehicles can avoid colliding with one another other based on car-to-car data sharing well out on the horizon. “If the other vehicle isn’t communicating its location there’s not going to be much information to use in try to avoid somebody,” he added. “It’s really hard to say when this DSRC communication is going to become important to consumers. We have the first projects running in R&D… but it’s really hard to put a time on it.”
Unlike consumer electronics devices like phones, tablets, and laptops, the automotive industry has much more fundamental safety and functionality concerns to consider before rolling out new technologies. “To get it down pat, there are other issues… that other types of manufacturers don’t have to deal with. For instance safety and making sure your car works.” Alfred offered an example; if you download an app to your phone, and it disables the device, you can put your SIM card in another phone and you’re okay. But take that same application and download it to your car, and you might not make it to work that day. “Similarly, if you have an application that creates a distraction to the user, that’s not very good for use on the road either.” He said.
CUE, or Cadillac User Experience, was the first automotive infotainment system to develop an open architecture designed to attract 3rd party application developers. But how GM ultimately chooses to operate their app store could go one of two ways, Alfred elaborated: “In the mobile market you see different philosophies towards closed platforms, versus totally open. Android and Google have gone more of the open route and Apple maintains pretty tight control over their app store. It seems to me that car manufacturers are going to go more towards [the Apple model], maintaining only apps that are available in vehicles are ones that are pretty well tested.”
Ultimately, Alfred concedes that we may see some of the same applications we know and love on our portable devices showing up in the car. “They’ll be able to download the app that they like, that they feel comfortable with.” But what interests him more, is the possibility of apps that are written for the car. “I’m excited about… unique applications that are geared only towards the automotive environment. There’s a new exercise app I just heard about called Zombies, Run! it gets you to run more and stay in shape by making a game out of it.” The application tracks where you are and generates missions based on that location. “It puts you in a world where there are zombies everywhere,” said Alfred. “Your house is safe, but the minute you leave a house, you’re in a world of zombies. You have to accomplish missions by going to different places… you level up that way. That’s an interesting application of running and fitness and location. I’m curious to see what types of applications are going to come in a car like that.”
Alfred isn’t sure what the automotive equivalent to Zombies, Run! might be, but he suggests a sort of car-centric scavenger hunt that would some day have drivers cruising the streets in search of hidden landmarks. Gamification of the driving experience already exists in the motoring world; Nissan’s Leaf electric vehicle keeps track of speed, braking and power usage, providing constant feedback so drivers can improve. The software functions as a game, keeping track of the driver’s achievements and awarding tree shaped symbols as they improve the efficiency of their driving habits. Leaf driver’s can then share their Leaf profile online, extolling their frugal throttle work, formulating a sort of anti-race.
It’s not yet clear where all this is going, but I have at least one idea to pass on: I propose an app that labels oblivious drivers like faux Walter White, who veered into my lane in Atlanta, with some kind of badge of shame— a badge of shame beyond the Pontiac Aztec, that is.
is the Executive Editor of Know Journal.