Tuesday, December 28, 2010

>:( Smart Car?

“Smart Car” or is it “Sm-rt Car”, you decide!

"Over the past 100 years, there has been a steady progression of innovations that enhance the driving experience, in particular the continuing trend toward automating more driving tasks. "Human Factors for Limited–Ability Autonomous Driving Systems," an Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program project, aims to investigate driver engagement through the development of limited–ability autonomous driving systems. Part of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) long–term strategy in understanding autonomous systems, the 3–year study is being conducted by General Motors Corporation and Delphi Corporation (Delphi Electronics and Safety and Delphi Steering)."

It is interesting to see the new technologies that car companies are using to improve their products. Being a product designer, seeing "the new products" gives me “clues as to what car companies are using to market themselves” and distinguish their products from their competition.

Two such innovations are the new “Green Car" technology and “Smart Car” electronics. I will not discuss “green car” technology here.

Having “voluntarily bailed” from the auto industry over seven years ago, I like to think I demonstrated some business foresight. I knew that the products "they" were building and how they "did it" just would not “cut it”, so I left Michigan and returned to Ontario to focus on "green design".

I honestly thought that GM was going to go out of business. Ford, on the other hand, I felt had a better chance. Thanks to “free markets” GM is still alive, but, not well. I blamed all this on the “forward thinking” business types that were more interested in bonuses than their products. Most of my assertions came true. Smart? I assert yes. I wonder if the USA is "too big to fail".

Another aside, in 2003: I thought that GM would get scooped by Toyota in 2013. Interesting how fast things changed for the worse after George W. Bush was in office. Even I could not predict that. Karl Rove certainly raised the bar on lowering morality. I have since recalibrated my “Nostradamus Algorithms” in my brain. Good thing, when the banks crashed in the USA we all found out that the banks can blackmail President, for cash, with threats of “the whole system” crashing "over the weekend". Those republicans sure can get their way and their loot bags! I digress.

Lately, I “see” more “Smart” innovation: collision detection and prevention systems for cars. I think that the premise is sincere: help drivers avoid crashing. Many in the auto industry have dreamed of the “autonomous highways” where the driver can “switch off” and enjoy the ride. Well, we are still far from that ideal, but, is “switching off” a "healthy thing" whilst in a moving vehicle? The pure scientist would tell you it is possible. Still waiting to see the tax bill for “retooling” the highways, roads and cars in Canada and the USA. Would it be a “Smart investment”?

For the interim, we have Smart Car technology “beginnings”: various collision detection systems and “automatic emergency braking”. Many scientific papers have been written about the “human factors engineering” and the act of driving.

In my opinion, the “harder it is to operate” something, the “more the human brain is engaged” in that activity. As soon as these "complex functions" are replaced with a technology, does our brain become less active with the activity? I assert yes.

At first “blush”, I see the benefit of such systems: safer cars and more protection for drivers. This is what is being used to market the “safety package options” for these cars. Of course, some people go “Wow!” and buy the car, thinking they are “smart” too? Not sure, I do not know.

These safety systems differ from the “autonomous autodrive driver technologies”. A few companies have already tried the “fully automatic driverless systems” ( for example: long haul trucking or highway driving in Caravan-style ). The current systems are added features for the driver, not, fully automatic systems.

What they did find, with “fully automatic systems” is that there is a high percentage of “disengaged drivers” (falling asleep at the wheel, not paying enough attention to the road). This is not a new finding, pilots have the same challenges with “fly by wire” technology: a non-alert pilot. Lazy brains = poor performance results?

So, if we look at the demographics of drivers, I am concerned that "certain demographics" will consciously or sub-consciously become "less aware of what is on the road". Think of this as a “lazy brain” tool. Some may feel that the “Smart Car” will allow them to be less focused on the road. We have seen the effects of distracted drivers: cellphones and the laws now being written to "keep drivers mentally engaged on the road". Of course, some still think they are "smarter than the professional psychologists that know how brains work".

It is also interesting that the Canadian Government does not study these technologies, independantly, before they let the car companies introduce their products. Governments have given product control to the companies, because they are the “experts”, just like the "free markets" are #1 too.

Is this safe thinking? Are the insurance companies ready for the lawsuits? I wonder if insurance companies prefer poor drivers or good drivers? As long as customers pay, I think the insurance companies have no preference. Is disaster capitalism a great model for the insurance companies? I am not sure.

I could turn this into a ten page blog, easy. But, I want to wrap this up, to do some real "green design work". I enjoy designing green stuff, so, its not really work :)

Lets look at one “extreme” example: auto-braking technology. Looks and sounds cool! But, what about the car behind you, on the road, if they cannot stop “as fast”, will you be rear-ended? I assert yes. This car also has a "Pedestrian Collision System"? Do we need more technology to "not hit people". At least someone might be spared from the "lipstick-tweeking and cellphone-engaged shopping monsters". Sound overboard? I have seen it recently. Too engaged in "social systems" while the focus should be on the "mechanical system" of not "hurt others". Wake up, please.

I would also like to point out that adding all these electronic systems, that will be thrown away in the 8 year lifecycle of a car, is a waste and is toxic. Planned obsolesence will add much more e-waste to our environment. Radars, cameras, sensors, computers all added for "safety" while hurting our planet. Yes. Blood minerals? Perhaps.

My definition of a “Smart Car”: An "emissions-free", "green material constructed" and highly energy efficient car, modestly sized, with the ability to be easily maintained, by the owner, that would last more than 8 years. Its a start.

Is polluting our environment “Smart”? I am looking forward to the day that the old business practices are replaced by the “free markets” of consumers wanting a "healthy planet first".

Maybe we need “auto-braking technology” for our “incapable and immoral governments and corporations” that are ignoring my planets' "challenges".


P.S. - Did you notice in the Volvo video that the driver is drinking a coffee. Mmmm Coffee.

P.S.S. - What will they think of next: Brain

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