We are fast entering the sharing and bartering society. Airbnb, decisions by An Bord Pleanála notwithstanding, has shown how those unused spare rooms and those sparsely-used holiday homes can be turned into low-level profit centres. The same is slowly happening with cars. Already Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services are fast overtaking regular taxi firms, and while short-term micro-rentals are largely handled thus far by corporations, the day when you can rent your own car out for short hire when you’re not using it is fast approaching.
What, though, if you could make money when your car is parked up and going nowhere? If you could find a way to gain something, either a small bit of extra cashflow or maybe rewards such as free wifi access or discounts on products, without having to take the risk of loaning your car to a complete stranger? Welcome to the world of the connected car.
Now, the connected car is often conflated with the autonomous, self-driving car. Many of us have assumed, at one time or another, that the two terms are roughly interchangeable. However, Dr Wendy Belluomini, the American-born director of IBM’s research laboratory at its campus to the west of Dublin, quickly put me straight on my technological faux pas. “The connected car isn’t exactly a necessary step on the road to automation. The technologies around the connected car are about making the driving experience better. What you have to remember is that if we’re going to build a car that works all the time as an autonomous car, it’s got to work without connectivity,” she said. “Most of the intelligence for how the car reacts, how it functions, how it avoids obstacles, that has to be in the car, physically. You’re not going want to go up to a cloud to ask ‘should I avoid this truck?’ Other things, like routes and where should I go and so on that can be part of the connected car. But the safety-critical autonomous drive capability, that has to be built into the car, because if wifi or cellular towers go down, you’re suddenly going to have all these cars that can’t function.”
While IBM is hard at work on those self-same autonomous, fully robotic cars (including the Olli self-driving taxis that whisk IBM employees around its facilities in Washington, Miami and Las Vegas) the work in Ireland is more on the connected car, on not just how to hook our cars up to “The Internet Of Things” but to make them productive members of that internet, even when they’re sitting still.
Martin Mevissen, the research staff manager, picks up the point. “To give one example of the more connected car project, we worked on one particular project involving parked cars. In a city, in Dublin city, there are parked cars everywhere, and they’re maybe considered a nuisance. But we started to think of them as a resource that’s not really being used at the moment,” he told The Irish Times. “Cars are parked 95 per cent of the time during the day, and they are more and more equipped with sensors, computing power, batteries, etc and all that’s unused when they’re parked. So what we looked at was are there not services we can deliver from these cars, that could be of use to the driver or other road users. So how can we use parked cars to make everyone’s lives easier?
“So, for example, you could use parked cars to detect, via their onboard cameras and parking sensors, empty parking spaces in the vicinity. So if there are lots of cars parked up already, you can get them to look for the free spaces and you can transmit that information to somebody driving downtown. So, given the size of your own car, and using the information gathered by the parked cars, we can detect where there are parking spaces suitable for your car near your destination. How many there are, what radius around your destination they are in. So it makes it easier to find parking spaces and there is less traffic driving around looking for spaces.”
Of course, there could then be the problem that too many of us will be converging on too few spaces, but IBM’s concern is the technology, not the settling of kerb-side arguments. The research goes further than hooking up existing systems though, as IBM is working towards a total change in the way we interact with our cars.
“So, the car is really the ultimate Internet of Things device. Compared to your phone, which is pretty powerful when it comes to being a connected device, a car is potentially hugely more powerful and can be fitted with more sensors and, most of all, it has this big battery,” says Belluomini. “Because that’s the problem with your phone, right? It’s always running out of battery, but a car has a big battery and enough to turn your engine over and start the car. So compared to the kind of power levels that sensors and cameras need, there’s a lot of excess power there, so you can keep sensors and other things active in a parked car and use that as a mobile Internet of Things infrastructure.
“You don’t have to route all this through your phone. In fact, the car industry would probably rather it didn’t go through the phone at all, they’d rather it would be part of the car and your phone would just connect and give your status to the car, and you just leave your phone in your pocket. So if a car is interacting with its driver verbally, through natural speech, it’s going to be much less distracting than having a phone and looking down at it for a map or something. We all do that now, because it’s better than not having connectivity at all, but the distraction aspect is really bad. But a car is this huge, enveloping interface and you shouldn’t be trying to interact with the car through this little screen on your phone. I just think it makes sense that the car, being such a powerful platform, will take on a lot of those functions. The reason why we’re doing it on our phones so much is because the technology turns over so much faster in the phone industry. The car industry has much longer lifetimes and a longer road map for getting technology into the car.”
There are, of course, serious concerns over the sudden ramp-up of connected technology in our cars, and the vulnerability that brings when it comes to things such as hacking and denial-of-service attacks from unscrupulous cyber-criminals. There have been several high-profile cases of late of cars being hacked and controlled even from several miles away, but Belluomini is confident that such issues will be overcome. “The attacks against cars’ on-board systems that have been successful so far have mostly been researchers showing that it’s possible,” she said. “I have not seen nor heard of an actual malicious attack being successful, in the wild. Largely those were succeeding because the infrastructure that’s currently in the cars was never designed to be connected. The architecture that’s currently in cars really dates back to the 1990s, so when that was designed, there was no intention for it to be connected to the internet. It just wasn’t in anybody’s minds that there would be sufficient bandwidth to connect these things. But I think that’s going to change, it’s already changing. As the car industry realises, and they’ve already realised to a great extent, that they want to put connectivity in their cars, they’re quickly ramping up to build the vehicle infrastructure from the ground up to make sure that those kinds of attacks aren’t going to work.
“The things that are being done now, the attacks, are all working on the basic assumption that once you’re in the car, there wouldn’t be any need for security, nor any connectivity. So the bar that researchers have had to get over, in security terms, so far has been pretty low. So yes, we have to do that, to ramp up security but that’s already happening. Look at Tesla. They had a researcher say that the car could be broken into, electronically, and they had an update rolled out within 10 days to close that hole. So it’s really great that the researchers are out there doing those things, because they’re showing us what needs to be done.”
There is an assumption, deep within the high-tech and indeed the automotive community, that the drive towards the greater connectivity and automation of the car is down to the fact that interest in mechanical things is waning, and people simply want their cars to be extensions of their mobile devices. Belluomini puts me straight on that too; she’s a proper car nut. “I think it’s a generational thing. I like cars, personally. When I moved here I bought a little BMW 2 Series coupe, which I’m enjoying. So I don’t imagine that I’ll ever see a car as just a thing, which gets me from place to place. But I can see that that is somewhat changing among younger people, and I see the enthusiasm waning. I remember turning 16 on the Sunday and being in the queue at the motor vehicles department to get my learners’ permit on the Monday. Maybe that doesn’t happen so much any more. It isn’t as much an important rite of passage as it once was, but I don’t think people who like driving as an activity are going to go away, we’re just going to become more of a sub-group. For some people it’s going to be more about extending their online experience into the car, just have that be a smooth transition.
“I think what’s happening, and this is not a generational thing, is that people now have an expectation that things are going to be easy and intuitive, and just work. And we’ve been taught that by things like the iPad and ordering things from Amazon, we’ve raised the bar of how much unpleasant interface we’re willing to tolerate. And people get annoyed at things they wouldn’t have gotten annoyed at 20 years ago. So I think that the way one interacts with the car is a very important consumer choice. And I think the car makers understand that, and the company that comes out first with a truly modern way of interacting with a car, that isn’t reliant on buttons and dials and trying to work out how to turn on something that you need, but is intuitive and the car reacts to you and assists you, I think that’s going to be a huge competitive advantage for that car maker. People don’t tolerate awkward interfaces any more. I don’t think we’re that far away from that point, but you’ll see it in phases, it’ll be an incremental thing. But a small numbers of years, not ten or more.”