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[March 22, 2013]
San Jose Mercury News Troy Wolverton column
Mar 22, 2013 (San Jose Mercury News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- OK, I might as well admit it: That annoying guy you've seen driving stupidly or holding up traffic because he's looking at his smartphone instead of the road It might have been me.
I admit it's dangerous. I know it's annoying and, in some cases, illegal. Believe me, I hate it when I see other people doing it. But I have a hard time putting down my phone in the car.
I pick it up to play music, to get driving directions and even, on occasion, to talk to someone with it pressed against my ear.
So I'm looking forward to having smarter and more connected cars. I'm hopeful they will dissuade me and other drivers -- you know who you are! -- from some of our more dangerous habits.
Right now, neither my wife nor I have particularly smart cars. Her 2006 Honda Civic doesn't have a navigation system or support any kind of apps, and it's screen is barely big enough to display the time or a radio station's call numbers.
My 2008 Prius is a bit more evolved. It has a large display screen, a built-in hands-free system and its entertainment console allegedly can respond to certain voice commands. But because it invariably misinterprets and mangles whatever I say, that feature is much better at giving my kids a good laugh than doing anything useful.
Among the things my console does not do is allow me to interact with any of the apps on my iPhone, tell me about current traffic conditions or recommend a good restaurant close by.
I'd like a car that could do all of those things. I'm also excited about some of the possibilities being explored today in having cars be able to talk with each other and to the cloud.
By knowing the location of other cars on the road, your future car might be able to warn you of cars you can't see that are crossing your path. By noting when other cars on the road ahead turn on their windshield wipers, your connected car could also alert you that you when you might be running into rain. And eventually all this communication among cars could allow for a very safe and efficient system of driverless vehicles.
But as excited as I am about smarter cars, I'm somewhat wary of the development too.
I'm not entirely convinced, for example, that smarter cars will mean less distracted drivers. Right now, many of the interfaces used to interact with the entertainment consoles and smart-car features are just plain awful and can be as distracting as looking down at your smartphone.
Even in newer cars, the voice recognition systems are often little better than the one in my Prius. Meanwhile, the number of buttons being placed on steering wheels these days is starting to make them look like game controllers -- and they can be every bit as complicated to use for the uninitiated.
I'm also worried about the privacy and security implications of smarter cars. Already, cars are collecting or have access to large amounts of personal or sensitive data. For example, many cars today offer to copy your address book to their entertainment system to make it easier for you to place calls. And cars with navigation systems and Internet connectivity could also potentially be used to track their occupants' movements or their driving habits.
Right now, it's unclear how consumers will be able to control who has access to that data. And as cars become smarter and more connected, they could also become vulnerable to hacking.
Then there's the problem of obsolescence. Cars often take years to develop and are then driven for a decade or so after they leave showroom floors. So the technology they incorporate is frequently out-of-date long before the cars have reached the end of their useful lives.
Carmakers are trying to solve that problem. Ford has already offered software upgrades for its Sync system, and some manufacturers are at least talking about trying to make the computers and wireless radios inside the car replaceable.
But I'm skeptical that automakers will provide updates in a timely and low-cost fashion, and that the updates will be adequate to stave off obsolescence for the life of the car.
If not, your smart car of today may again be a dumb car before it's done running. And folks like me will be back to fumbling with our smartphones.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.
___ (c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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