Cars are becoming more connected and computerized. You know what that means. “We absolutely believe there will be a day when cars will drive themselves,” says Dan Flores, spokesman for GM’s advanced technology and global R&D groups. Randall Reed, CEO of Addison-based World Class Automotive Group, is on board, too. “Autonomous cars are inevitable,” he says.
There is a cultural momentum to the self-driving automobile. Each year, new car features like rear-view cameras, tire pressure monitors, traction control, forward-facing radar and other innovations are doing more than making cars safe; those features are giving your car senses.
“We already have the building blocks of fully-automated cars on our vehicles today,” says North Texas automotive columnist and broadcaster Ed Wallace. “We already have the option on many cars that beeps or shakes the steering wheel if you drift out of your lane.” Wallace says these creature comforts—like self-parking, automatic braking and radar-assisted cruise control—are priming us for the moment when cars drive themselves. “I see a huge market for self-driving cars, particularly in the baby boomer generation so that they can remain mobile as they age,” he adds.
On the car lot, the novelty of a driverless car is what dealers want. “It will not change the way we do business,” says WCAG’s Reed. “The same customers that buy our high-end vehicles now will still be there in the future.”
“We’re soon going to be at the age where our parents had to take the car keys away from our grandparents,” Wallace says, noting the nearly seven decades since the first of 76 million baby boomers were born after World War II. The freedom of being able to go out in the world, on your own, a little while longer is precious. “And don’t forget—baby boomers are the No. 1 car buyers in the history of the automobile industry,” Wallace says.
Moving Toward Autopilot
There are niche markets where fully automated vehicles will arrive soon. The mass market, self-driving car will be a few years later, because teaching machines to navigate suburban surroundings—like slowing down when you see a kid’s bike laying on the sidewalk—is complicated. “That last 1 percent of knowledge is really unpredictable and tough for machine learning,” says Manfred Huber, who teaches a course on unmanned vehicle systems at the University of Texas at Arlington’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
Huber and his colleagues are working on the reservation and scheduling system for a self-driving car project sponsored by the Army’s Applied Robotics for Installation And Base Operations. The use of autonomous cars to pick up and drop off military veterans for their on-base medical appointments holds a lot of promise because of the relatively contained environment of a military base.
Dallas County is home to 18 of the 100 most congested roadways in Texas.
Dallas County is home to 18 of the 100 most congested roadways in Texas.
Huber’s work reveals that adaptive user interfaces might soon make their way into our future automobiles. “If a screen is better suited to the individual, they’re more likely to use it,” he says. Indeed, it’s a shame so many traffic routing and other useful apps come to our cars by way of our smartphones. “We use cellphones while driving, but they really weren’t designed for it,” Huber says.
Silicon Valley automaker Tesla Motors is today’s vision of the automotive future—connected, electric, and obsessively improving. Tesla is trickling out “autopilot” features for its Model S sedans via over-the-air software updates. Recent autopilot software packs added automatic emergency braking and blind-spot warning. Because Tesla sells its cars directly to its customers, and is not yet legally approved as an auto dealer in this state, the Tesla experience remains the exception, not the rule. Tesla expects to deliver around 55,000 Model S and X vehicles worldwide this year.
The largest automobile maker in North Texas, GM, has long been working to convince consumers that driving would someday be a technology-assisted affair with clear communications, automated controls, and creature comforts to help us suffer the monotony of the American road. The 1956 General Motors Motorama trade show featured an eight-minute movie that imagined life in 1976, when cars were remotely autopiloted via wires and magnets buried in the roadway. The video, now on YouTube, shows a traveling family in a turbine-powered car in constant radio communication with a control tower, where a uniformed professional suggests optimal routes, offers hotel recommendations, and even takes over the car’s controls for a while so Dad can push back the steering wheel and enjoy a cigar. As the control tower baritone patches the family’s car through to the hotel, via some in-car video phone, he croons, “Okay, Firebird, I’ll put you on the beam. The sunset is a honey and the hostess is a dream.”
Like Tesla, GM is gradually automating the entire driving experience. The 2017 model Cadillac will feature “Super Cruise,” a set of capabilities that will keep the car in its lane, keep up with the flow of traffic, and steer itself under ideal driving conditions. The car will nearly drive itself, but “the driver still has to stay engaged during the process,” says Flores. “The driver is still responsible for the vehicle.”
But it will be a while before those cars represent the mainstream driving experience. GM’s Arlington Assembly Plant employs 4,125 people in a 4.37 million square-foot facility on 250 acres of land. They produced 280,270 vehicles last year. None of those cars could fly or drive themselves to your home, but a lot of them were Internet access-ready.
Indeed, many new cars can connect to the Internet, store and share data about themselves, their components and their drivers. Internet access is either optional or standard on 43 percent of the vehicles in model year 2015, according to Kelley Blue Book. This is a massive technology shift: Internet access was only available in 6 percent of the vehicles in the 2012 model year.
If your car is not equipped with Internet access, but it was produced after 1996, Dallas-based Vinli offers a $99 data port plug that connects cars to a nationwide 4G LTE network and serves as a platform for vehicle-related apps and services, essentially turning cars into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Vinli, which spun out of Dallas-based Dialexa Labs last year, raised $6.5 million this summer with investments from Samsung Global Innovation Center, Cox Automotive, Continental ITS, and the Westly Group, an early investor in Tesla. Its data port, which hit the market in August, allows users to access hundreds of apps tailor-made for vehicles on the road. And, it has a built-in accelerometer and temperature sensors.
Making more data available about how, when, and where we drive will likely improve safety, reduce pollution, and keep us off the road when traffic is at its worst. Car manufacturers offer incredible features with their own vehicles, but those apps and networks don’t allow for much in the way of data-sharing in the way that Vinli’s ecosystem could. Connected cars could pinpoint when certain mechanical systems are failing, what driving routes are most dangerous, as well as alerting loved ones when a crash occurs. The Vinli platform, of course, will also tempt consumers to track all manner of driving habits in the same way that fitness bracelets have turned ordinary citizens into step-counting activity obsessives.
The important thing, as Flores said, is that even as we get more access to data and see the slow trickle of driving automation, drivers have to pay attention. The Texas Department of Transportation says that there were 100,825 crashes in the state that involved “distracted driving”—up 6 percent from 2013. Smartphones are usually singled out as the culprit, but the official list of “distractions” from TxDoT includes everything from putting on make-up to eating a hamburger. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says drivers using mobile phones are four times more likely to cause serious injury in a crash, and research by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute shows that it takes a driver twice the amount of time to react when they’re texting and driving.
Technology is contributing to the driver distraction, but we shouldn’t let the bad habits of a few motorists dissuade us from connecting more cars. Fully-autonomous cars may be in our future, but the cars ahead of us now aren’t going anywhere—and we need to know why.
In North Texas, more people are spending more time on congested roads—and it’s a problem self-driving cars won’t fix. Dallas County is home to 18 of the 100 most congested roadways in Texas; there are 16 more roadways to add to that list when you include Tarrant, Collin, and Denton counties. The time traffic takes adds up fast, too. For example, just on U.S. Highway 75, from Interstate 635 to Woodall Rogers Freeway, the Texas Department of Transportation estimates that drivers and their passengers are collectively delayed more than 700,000 hours each year.
If we can get more vehicles and traffic signals on a 4G network, we get the crowd-sourced data we need to route us around delays and move traffic along. Just like when we made the leap from cellphones to smartphones, connected cars will help us find patterns we’ve missed and services we can’t believe we ever lived without.