How Smart is your Car?

Rear-view TV cameras, multi-zone heating and air conditioning, parking sensors, electronic stability control systems, theater-like audio -- today's vehicles are absolutely stuffed with technical wizardry.  The new features will allow cars to perform feats that were virtually unimagined a decade ago.  There is a downside, though.  The multiplicity of vehicle systems can't communicate and interact among themselves very well.  Instead, like kids at a grade school sock hop, they seem to stick to their own little groups and not worry about others much.

Not only is this inefficient; it is also ineffective. Even though today's cars have more computing and sensing power than ever before, they are not nearly as smart and, more to the point, as easy to operate as they could be.  While auto manufacturers are already introducing intelligent application solutions to individual issues like sound or safety on a piecemeal basis, this incremental addition of features and functions is probably not the most effective approach, according to a new report from Strategy Analytics.  Instead, looking at cars as robots might be a better way to build automobiles in the future.

"Automakers interested in developing smarter cars can learn a great deal from the US military's efforts to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles," said Neena Buck, vice president of the emerging frontiers program at the research firm.

As with many mature, consumer-oriented products that have a long history of development, today's cars suffer from feature overload, often at the expense of the driver's understanding and reaction time, Strategy Analytics says. With more and more computing devices on board cars, product planning and marketing groups within car companies are providing the usual checklist approach of features and functions within each category of car in order to compete with their rivals.  But this ad hoc approach to features can result in cars laden with unused and/or unusable features.  Some of the luxury vehicles from European manufacturers are so dense with features that it is doubtful most owners even try to use them all, much less use them on a day-to-day basis.  In fact, some automakers are finding that adding features actually injures their customer satisfaction scores.

Part of the problem is that a knowledge gap exists between vehicle manufacturers, who are accustomed to feature-by-feature comparisons and incremental additions to cars, and developers of autonomous vehicles who have had to re-think the design of a vehicle from the ground up. A new Strategy Analytics report discusses how automotive OEMs and suppliers can leverage work done in autonomous robotics systems to create smarter vehicles that can recognize their occupants, understand driver and passenger needs, continuously anticipate obstacles and problems, and inform or assist the driver to take appropriate action.

"More and more, competition within the automotive industry is going to be based on intellectual property and software built into vehicles, in addition to the physical design and visual appeal of the actual car," said Ian Riches, director, Automotive Electronics Service. "Vehicles with built in self-awareness, as well as ongoing situational awareness, are going to become increasingly commonplace, as high-end offerings in today's passenger cars migrate to all vehicles across the board."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles and the human (not to mention robotic) condition.  He lives in Villeperce, France.