The Computers We Sit In

Each decade the technology we use gets smaller and more portable.  In the 1980 & 1990’s we were set free to work from home (or on vacation) with laptop’s going mainstream.  The smartphone changed the last decade for us to forever being able to answer any question at anytime and redefined the word “bump”.   And this decade is looking to be when technology becomes attached to us (or embedded in us) via the surge in wearable computing.

Independent and complementary to this trend is something completely different.  It’s the ability for us to step inside and surround ourselves in a fully functional and networked computer that is highly sophisticated, connected and aware of our presence…. And also goes 0-60mph in under 8 seconds.  Our cars are becoming the computers we sit in.

I believe we are mid-way through a three-phase transformation in the computers that we sit in and, up until now, have taken for granted as primarily a transportation vehicle:

Phase-1:  The awakening of the mobile digital platform.

From a technological standpoint, automobiles are already rapidly becoming highly sophisticated.  The Chevy Volt reportedly has 10M lines of code that operates 100 electronic controllers.  That most likely doesn’t include the navigation and media system, which, on European luxury cars have over 20M lines of code by themselves.  Today’s modern car has more lines of code running when you back out of the driveway than the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner combined!

These computers we sit in already have a sophisticated network (the CAN bus) for the 100+ sensors and devices that allow not just engine component interaction but also connect all the devices from the radio, GPS, safety and ignition systems into one highly complex and sophisticated network.  Although the CAN bus is critical it is just one of several network communication technology that is infecting the automobile which include cellular, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (most of which are for human/computer interaction but the cellular network has been used more recently to communicate between the car and diagnostic systems and remote services such OnStar (for example).   Clearly there is also a need for improved automotive cyber security measures as well but that will come.

When taken as a whole the combination of the electronic components of the modern car, the embedded systems and the network and communication systems all lay the groundwork for a highly sophisticated platform upon which many innovations can be built.  The mobile digital platform is now fully awake and available on almost all modern automobiles.

Phase-2:  Productivity Purpose vs. Transportation Purpose

Clearly the most recently hyped automotive technology (and rightfully so) is the autonomous driving technology which, although science fiction just a few years ago is rapidly becoming as a reality.   Michigan, which needs to take a stronger leadership role in this space, is working on legislation to become the fourth state to allow self-driving cars on public roads.  Based on the news from leading automotive manufacturers we’ll start seeing some cars with partial autonomous driving technology in 2014 with fully self-driving cars available in the next few years, certainly before the end of this decade.

A major motivation for adopting this technology is to increase driver safety and reduce automotive accidents, which is a tremendous win for society.

That said, what hasn’t been focused on is the impact that this technology will have on our lives beyond those very important goals. I believe this technology will usher in the next phase of the computers we sit in… The phase when we start to think of cars as productivity centers in addition to transportation vehicles

This year, the average American will spend one week sitting in their car (38 hours).

Once autonomous driving capabilities are mainstream in our automobiles there will be a strong demand for significant changes in the interior design of our automobiles to enable increased productivity.  If you have ever tried to use a laptop sitting in the driver’s seat in a parking lot you know exactly how much improvement is needed!

This phase of the evolution of the computers we sit in will generate the most innovative interior changes to automobiles in the last 100 years (think first class cabins in the new Boeing 787).

Additionally there will be new ways to tap into the mobile digital platform that surrounds you including network interaction, power sources and sharing of information.

With a highly mobile digital interactive platform and a redesigned driver and passenger cabins the computers we sit in will truly become productivity centers that also take you places.  This shift to productivity purposed features, as a priority, in addition to or above transportations services in automotive design will signal significant progress in this phase.

Phase-3: Internal Occupant Services

Finally, with the awakening of the mobile digital platform and the transformation of the way we think of our cars to productivity centers we will have set the groundwork for the final phase of the evolution of the computers we sit in.  This phase will be dominated by advancements in how the computer that surrounds us, holds us, weighs us, observes our interactions and yes, watches us.

Today we think of our smart phones as being highly personal and event part of us but in reality our interaction with smart phones is mostly transaction based and temporary.  They are not mounted in front of us constantly (although Google Glass is making progress there).  They aren’t holding us, being pushed by us, pressed by us or constantly in front of us regardless of direction we look.  They don’t surround us.  They aren’t constantly aware of their surrounding including the climate.  And they don’t control our environment.  The computers we sit in do that now.

Already the computers we sit in are controlling our climate and keeping us at a comfy 70 degrees regardless of the weather outside, they are also starting to engage us when we are drowsy or driving poorly.  Eventually it is likely they will sense our physical state and predict our needs recommending destinations, products or breaks.

Ultimately, the computers we sit in will watch us as much as we watch the world around us.  If 3 out of 4 passengers in a car look left at a particular billboard as you fly by it at 70 MPH the computer we sit in might suggest a new product to be purchased and notify the nearest retail provider of that product to meet you at the door if you are interested in buying it.

In this phase, the computers we sit in will augment and interface seamlessly with the mobile, portable and wearable technology that we bring with us to increase our overall experience and productivity.   An example might be that the car processes blood sugar data from your wearable sensors and recommend a local restaurant along your route and a specific meal that will supplement your weight loss plan in a safe and easy manner… in fact it will even order the food for you, pay for it and have it ready as you pull up to the drive-through window.

The restaurants and other retail businesses in your geography will be notified of your intent and are more likely to prepare for your arrival when they are notified you are already physically in route to their destination with intended purpose registered.

Ultimately, the combination of the availability of a mobile digital platform that is productivity focused and has highly tailored occupant interaction services will fundamentally change the way we look at transportation and the time we spend on the road.

If I could, I would order mine today… But once it arrives you won’t likely find me in my office, as I will have moved into the garage.

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