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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Connected, driverless, or not

Technological advancement is rampant among automakers.  Though sometimes moving in uncertain or even misguided directions, it nevertheless dominates industry news.  Experts have differing opinions of the eventual results of this trend.

For example, akin to the frenetic pace of road building once autos were invented, the addition of electronic gadgetry to new vehicle models has flourished.  Ever since the concept of a “connected car” emerged, auto manufacturers have been in a fierce competition to imitate all of the features customers favor on their smartphones.

The conclusion of panelists at the recent Detroit SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) World Congress was that many of today’s vehicles have a baffling mix of infotainment features and apps that consumers don’t even use.

Those experts claimed that the industry needs to improve upon the controls and displays related to the information, entertainment and communications systems.  David Lyon, a former General Motors designer-turned-consultant declared, “Vehicles today are over laden with tools.  Most systems today are trying to look like the Apple iPhone. It doesn’t work.”

Other panelists concurred that drivers don’t need the massive array of features now appearing on most new vehicles.  They added that such overload can be bewildering, confusing and dangerously distracting.  Too often, Lyon feels, complexity creeps into these systems when a simple volume knob, for instance, would suffice on a radio.

David Taylor, head of connected systems for Panasonic, claimed there is an “explosion” in consumer services and expectations.  He added, “We need to get away from worthless features in a car.”

It’s obvious that “the jury is still out” when it comes to connected cars, and it looks like it will take some time to determine a verdict.

Regarding driverless, autonomous cars, Google director of engineering and futurist, Ray Kurzweil prognosticates that they are a certainty.  In fact, he predicts that the days when inexpensive computers will outperform humans in the task of driving are not far off.

Kurzweil has a good track record of forecasting the future, and although we already have vehicles that accelerate, steer and brake by themselves, the technology is not foolproof.  As a consequence, drivers must be ready to take over when confronted with unexpected obstacles or other emergencies.

But those motorists may be texting, otherwise distracted, or snoozing, disallowing them from spontaneously taking the wheel.  Such a conundrum is among the concerns that manufacturers are currently grappling with.

In fact, regarding the development of driverless cars and the dilemma of keeping accompanying motorists alert, Cadillac spokesman, David Caldwell said, “This is one of the most challenging parts.  There are many schools of thought and many concepts being tried.”

A system tested by BMW requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel to keep the car running.  Touch sensors in the steering wheel check frequently to ensure drivers’ hands are in place.

At the SAE World Congress, General Motors representatives said they have a system that will not require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel, but declined to reveal how they will monitor and alert the driver when it is time to take over.  Industry “snoops” suggest that system will involve a vibrating seat to warn drivers to take the wheel.

Toyota vaguely described software that would give motorists 5-10 seconds to react to road obstacles.

For both connected and driverless cars, each new innovation reveals another quandary concerning how to make such technologies convenient and useful to consumers.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at