Tuesday, January 22, 2013

eCars … a mixed bag

A recent review of some new model cars caught my attention.  The article was describing the various digital devices now found in most every new car.  One new model from Ford, gushed the writer, will have more than 70 separate computers and generate some 25 gigabytes of data per hour.  Seems that most every function of the operation of new cars requires some sort of computer.

After reading the article my mind wondered back several years to 2007 and a classic exchange between Bill Gates of Microsoft and executives from General Motors.  Mr. Gates had just made a presentation at a major computer trade show where he mocked car manufacturers for not innovating faster, noting that if the auto industry could mimic the rapid improvements being made in the computer industry, new cars would be able to go 100 miles on a gallon of gas and a new car would cost about $250 each.

This jab prompted GM to issue a rebuttal which has become a classic. In part the response noted that if new cars did indeed follow Mr. Gate’s lead they would also for no reason whatsoever crash twice a day. The press release went on to note that every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car. And of course you'd have to press the "Start" button to turn the engine off.

Well, of course, most of these predictions have not happened. Nevertheless, with the proliferation of so much digital technology in today’s cars, it does radically change the driving experience.  In some cases it has vastly improved safety.  Rather than fiddling with a paper map and looking for illegible street signs our attention can stay on the road and our GPS can get us to our destination, albeit often with some “recalculations.”

I continue to have some reservations about some computer assisted improvements.  Some functions, such as the heater / air conditioner and the sound system (we used to call it a radio), are getting so complex that the driver’s attention can easily be diverted.   Some new cars rely on a single touch screen on the dashboard to handle some very mundane functions that, in my opinion, are better done with the old technology of a simple on and off switch rather than a touch screen menu item. The good news is that with the improvements in voice recognition most all of these functions will be accomplished by just talking to your car. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

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