Having grown up in the age of the astronauts, the Space Race and Isaac Asimov, I marveled at the rapid advance of technology. it seemed that each week, a new age engineering miracle would find its way into mainstream society. the commercial textile, defense, food processing, automotive and manufacturing industries were huge beneficiaries of the NASA-based research that focused on tackling issues related to space travel — insulation from extreme temperature swings, food preservation, satellites, survival in zero gravity and a host of other natural conundrums that conspired to keep mankind forever confined to Earth. with the help of German scientists, V-2 rocket technology and the Kennedy administration, America landed on the moon and rocketed us into a technological revolution that would further chill the cold War as well as enhance our image as a world leader in innovation.
Technology has now become a centerpiece to the American way. the advent of microprocessors, personal computers and artificial intelligence has hastened the arrival of a new cultural and social revolution. the automotive industry has done its part to tap into our fascination and love affair with gadgets. each year, new cars roll of assembly lines loaded with a range of seemingly indispensable features that may never actually be utilized. Technology has also proven a two-edged sword as our skills as drivers atrophy. it seems as if the primary purpose of technology is to think for us. it eventually may not leave us much to do except drink coffee and watch reruns of “Cops.”
I was recently stuffing myself through a mind numbing industry luncheon when the table conversation shifted to cars and technology. I rolled my eyes. my own ” Space Odyssey” encounter with a 1994 Jaguar XJ left me with Ted Kozsinski contempt for technology and a nagging desire to get a personalized license plate that said “Hal 9000.”
Apparently, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, with sites in Kaiserslautern, Saarbrücken, Bremen and Berlin, is the leading German automotive efforts in the field of innovative software technology. AI along with BMW and Microsoft are teaming to develop an artificially intelligent car that will virtually drive itself. as my table mates were extolling the virtues of the 2011/2012 line of AI autos that can park, steer and alert drivers to a range of hostile road conditions, I shivered recalling my Hal 9000 adventure — being stuck in a Jaguar frozen in a 30-mph gear called “limp-home” mode that been erroneously triggered by a glitch in the electrical system that was sending a false positive engine failure message to the dashboard computer. I had been driving the ridiculously boring Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco when my used luxury auto decided to go on the fritz.
I consulted a range of mechanics over the course of my anguished 10-hour drive crawling up the coast. On that fateful day, I was informed that Jaguars were notorious for electrical problems and impossibly expensive to diagnose and treat.
“It could be a 25-cent fuse or a $2,000 problem. no way of knowing unless you go to the dealership.” the mechanic slammed the hood and wiped his greasy hands. He shrugged, “Sorry, man.”
Weeks later after my British vehicle’s mystery illness, the battery died. the automatic shoulder seat belt was not fully retracting into its sheath and gently clicking. the whisper clicking noise was barely audible each time I got into the Jag. once the car was engaged, the seatbelt would move into place. once parked, the engaged seat belt was slowly draining down my battery of its life force. after three weeks, and a third dead battery, I became a volcano of frustration pitching a fit in a store parking lot and slamming my fist into the dashboard. I could have sworn I heard a genteel Hal 9000 voice query me, “What are you doing, Mike? Don’t touch that panel.”
I eventually sold this English Christine a year later when the head gasket threatened to commit suicide. I had been considering retaining an exorcist instead of a mechanic but in the end, sold the car to a “motor-head” teen for pennies on the dollar.
Over the years, I have purposely avoided being seduced by the latest automotive technology. Not unlike a golfer that refuses to trade in his favorite 2003 driver for the latest hydrocephalic 2011 titanium Black Mamba, I am resolute in not chasing technology down its dark, expensive alleys. However, I must admit to being amazed at the gadgetry that is now finding its way into modern vehicles. Today’s upgraded package of whistles and bells can include a range of functions that fall just short of a virtual chauffeur. after purchasing a 2010 vehicle in 2009, I still cannot comprehend 50 percent of its functionality. Like my computer and its myriad applications, I just don’t seem to take advantage of technology.
While the Audi’s functionality is much more utilitarian than its Asian and Italian counterparts, there are elements baked into its package that include certain “black swan” applications — fog lights so you don’t hit a family member who might be lying down in the driveway or rear heated seats (anyone that sits in my back seat is under the age of 18 and deserves a cold rear end). my clever automobile can alert me to low tire pressure, seat belt utilization, insufficient vehicle liquid levels, and miles to go before I sleep. the vehicle can break down any journey into a mind numbing range of statistics including mpg, average speed and comparative performance to prior trips.
My children have figured out virtually every accessory in my Audi and have taken control. it took me six months to realize that I was not having hot flashes but that a 15-year-old had programmed the front seats to the highest temperature of 10. it was 30 degrees outside and I felt like I was sitting on a metal bench in Kuwait in August. Meanwhile, the satellite radio kept defaulting to an explicit hip-hop station.
As the table of stimulated motor-heads raved over the new models of AI cars, I was intrigued.
“They have incorporated a range of additional sensors into the vehicle to avert accidents due to fatigue and reckless tail-gating. the steering column vibrates when your car nears lane lines unless the turn indicator is illuminated. the car engages the braking system when it gets too close to another car or obstacle when parallel parking or easing into a blind spot.”
Another Motor Trend junkie jumped in.
“AI even promotes effective risk management. Limits are being incorporated by moving van, rental and fleet management companies who have worked with engineers to cap the risk of reckless driving by programming their trucks to not exceed 60 mph.”
Automakers, it seems like Apple, are now on to something.
Perhaps technology can help to control other untamed elements of our environment. I started to get pretty excited about all the possibilities. given that I am a parent of three teens and will soon have another destruction derby driver weaving his way along narrow stone walled roads, I started daydreaming of lowering my 4 digit insurance premiums. Perhaps my costs could reduce with the introduction of artificial intelligence.
I shared with a friend with Ford my idea of a new upgrade package called “Platinum Protect” for prospective families purchasing a new car with teenaged drivers. the Platinum Protect plan could include:
1) Slow down Feature — a GPS governed cruise control feature that correlates road, weather conditions and speed limits to incorporate and enforce maximum vehicle speed. a driver traveling on a rural winter road with a speed limit of 50 mph would be unable to operate the car at over 40 mph. This satellite fed speed minder could save thousands in speeding tickets and put a huge dent in the joy-riding industry.
2) Gotcha Feature — made popular in the television show, “Bait Car,” digital cameras can now be installed within a car’s cab as well as on front and rear bumpers to digitally record any activities that might give rise to an accident or incident. the digital images are housed in the Automotive Administrator Data Warehouse which can be accessed remotely via the web. Parents and law enforcement officials can access visual data which can confirm or refute testimony related to any event. Additional applications include e-mail notification when vehicles leave approved areas of operation, air bag deployment and sudden losses in tire pressure.
As is always the case when my medication starts to wear off, I allow my mind to wander and disappear into a science fiction future where machines run my life. I just need to leave the window ajar so the pizza guy can slip a deep dish inside and I will never have to leave the house. it all sounds so good.
As I pen this futuristic manifesto, my car has arrived to take me to the airport. From this angle, it almost appears there is no driver. What will they think of next?