Digital Fables and Foibles17

Smart Cars

The cost of the electronics in a modern car now exceeds the cost of its steel. It already has more than fifty microprocessors in it. That does not mean they have all been used very intelligently. You can be made to feel very foolish when you rent a fancy European car and realize when you are at the front of a long line for gas that you do not know how to electronically unlock the gas tank.

Cars will have smart radios, energy control, and information displays as the predominant population of digital devices. In addition, automobiles will enjoy another very particular benefit of being digital: they will know where they are.

Recent advances in mapping and tracking make it possible to locate a car's position vis-à-vis a computer model of all roads. The location of every road in the United States can fit on a single CD-ROM. With satellites, loran, or dead reckoning (adding the incremental movements of your car), or with a combination of these tracking techniques, cars can be located to within a few feet. Most people remember James Bond's Aston Martin, in which a computer display in the dashboard situated between him and the passenger seat (hers) showed him a map of where he was and where he was headed. This is now a commercial product, widely accepted and growing in its use. In the United States it was first launched by Oldsmobile in 1994.

There is a small problem, however. Many people, especially older drivers, are very bad at refocusing their eyes rapidly. They find it difficult to go from looking at things at infinity to those at two feet (and back and forth). Worse, some of us need to use reading glasses to see a map, which turns us into Mr. Magoo for driving. A much better way to deliver navigational assistance is by voice.

Since you are not using your ears to drive, they make an ideal channel for telling you when to turn, what to look for, and that if you see such-and-such, you have gone too far. The challenge of exactly how to phrase the directions is difficult (that's why humans do such a lousy job of it). The road is filled with many ambiguities. "Take the next right" is perfectly clear if the turn is several hundred feet or yards away. As you get closer, however, is the "next" right this right or the one after?

Though it is possible to build good, digital, voice-output "back seat drivers," we are not likely to see this concept on the U.S. market too soon. Instead, you will see exactly what James Bond had, right or wrong, safe or not. The reason is ridiculous. If the car talks to you and its mapping data are in error, sending you down a one-way street the wrong way, and you crash, guess who is currently liable? On the other hand, if that happens from reading a map, that is your tough luck. In Europe, where they are more enlightened about liability and litigation, Mercedes-Benz will introduce a talking navigational system this year.

Such navigational systems will not be limited to getting you from A to B. There will be new niche markets for acousta-guides of cities you visit ("on your right is the birthplace of . . .") and for information about food and lodging availability ("booked you a great hotel near Exit 3"). In fact, when your smart car of the future is stolen, it can call you up and tell you exactly where it is. Perhaps it will even sound frightened.

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Updated on April 15, 1996