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Cars of the Future

Turning Drivers into App Users


Turning Drivers into App Users

Source:Getty Images

The convergence of communication technology, big data, and Cloud services with automobiles will totally reshape our "mobile" lives. Who will rule in the new era? And what role will Taiwan play?



Turning Drivers into App Users

By Shu-ren Ku
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 574 )

Auto-piloted vehicles and the Internet of Vehicles are among the hottest topics and most important trends of 2015. At the Las Vegas show and the Shanghai Consumer Electronics Show in late May, the world's top 10 automakers pulled out all the stops, stealing the thunder from smart phones and wearable devices.

Be it a BMW galloping down the Autobahn on autopilot or the array of dazzling automotive technologies and services shown at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Shanghai, a portrait of the future of automobile life is being sketched out. 

This new world will see a paradigm shift in the century-old automobile industry, attracting all sorts of industries to climb aboard. But more than that, it will completely change the face of our mobile lives, making driving and riding in vehicles both safer and more convenient.

What will this world look like, and how will it transform our motoring lives? Let's take a moment to paint a picture of a day in this not-too-far-away future:

In the morning, before going to work or an appointment, you share your calendar from your mobile phone with your car. The car's computer proceeds to map out the best route according to the latest traffic conditions.

Before getting in your car, you start the engine and open the door via your mobile phone. During winter you can warm up the engine, and in the hot summer months you can run the air conditioner to cool it off before getting in.

En route, if there is an accident or congestion, the car's computer provides an alternate route. If you still end up stuck in traffic and the computer determines you'll be late, you can turn over driving duties to the car's autopilot system while you use the visual information system to contact your colleagues and take care of urgent business or even conduct a meeting.

Before arriving at your destination, the car's computer gives you the location of an available parking space. You alight at the entrance, input a command on your mobile phone, and the car automatically parks itself in the space, after which it reports the location to you via your phone. When you want to resume your rounds, you use your mobile phone to summon your car, which automatically drives to from the parking space to meet you.

On the way home from work, if you want to make dinner reservations or book tickets to a show, you can use the Internet to do so. And if any of the car's parts are worn out, broken, or need regular maintenance, the car's computer alerts you via your mobile phone and makes an appointment with the auto shop for you.

All of your interactions with the car and commands to its computer are transmitted via voice so you can concentrate on driving. In other words, the car of the future will become your mobile phone, driver, traffic update broadcast, secretary, office, and valet… all the while keeping everyone's on-line life connected on the road.

"My on-line experience gets cut off as soon as I get into the car, which makes no sense," says Yee-ming Chang, chief strategy officer of the PakLee Foundation, a long-time observer of the disruptive innovation of Internet technology. "In the future cars will have to fill this void," he adds.

Driving Is Like Using A Phone

Automobiles will be able to do these things in the future because such information communication technologies as the Internet, sensors, artificial intelligence, big data analysis, and Cloud services are ready now.

Parked outside BMW Welt, the fully electric BMW i3 urban vehicle, with semi-automatic driving and semi-online functions, is the first step toward automobiles of the future.

The central research campus of global electrical engineering and information communication systems leader Siemens, with a research staff of over 1,000 people, is located in Munich, Germany. In one corner, as inconspicuous as a garage laboratory, a research project is being conducted that could completely reshape the way automobiles are designed and operated in the future.

Subsidized by the German government and launched last year, Project RACE (Robust and Reliable Automotive Computing Environment for Future eCars) is being conducted to develop a standardized automobile computer architecture for future automobiles to replace the mechanical power transmission structure used today. 

Dr. Cornel Klein, director of the project, explains that current vehicle operation is based on a mechanical gear structure assisted by electrical motors. In the future, signals will be transmitted by the car's central processing unit through electrical wires to motors built into the car's four wheels to control steering, acceleration, and braking. Driving a car in the future will be simple and take little effort, not even requiring the driver to turn the steering wheel.

With no physical gears connecting the steering wheel and tires, the cockpit can be customized, permitting operation from either the left or right side according to preference.

But will losing the "feel" of driving we know today take the fun out of being behind the wheel?

BMW’s headquarters outside Munich is housed in a building that looks like an engine piston.

Klein says not to worry. Since everything is controlled by computer, you can choose Sports Car or Sedan modes to get the "feel" of driving, and you can also download any driving function you need to the car, just as we do with apps for our smart phones today.

In other words, the computer architecture is like Apple's iOS or Google's Android operating system for your car, making it adaptable enough to suit the demands of different car brands, drivers or markets, and enabling the development of new cars without necessitating a total re-design.

"Driving a car in the future will be as fun as playing computer games," observes Klein, adding, "and new car design will be like designing a new mobile phone."

Let Robots Learn From Human Strengths

Information and communication sensors will play an instrumental role in the blueprint of future automobiles.

The self-piloted BMW we rode in relies on cameras in the front and rear windshields to detect vehicles to all sides as well as such signals and indicators as road markings and speed limits. It uses over a dozen radars all around it to detect the relative speed and distance of other cars.

Meanwhile, a super-precise electronic navigation system accurate to within a centimeter or two guides the vehicle on its route.

Traffic and road conditions permitting, the car accelerates to the speed limit. If a car cuts in front, it automatically slows down, and if there is no car in the next lane, it automatically changes lanes before accelerating again.

These sensors are like eyes and ears, collecting information on conditions at all times.

Using on-board network communications systems, the automobile will receive status reports collected by the Cloud Control Center from other vehicles. Analysis and decision-making via AI computer can anticipate situations up ahead and take appropriate action.

An on-board vehicle Internet communications system links the car to infrastructure and lifestyle and entertainment retailers for all sorts of services.

BMW engineer and Taiwanese native Dr. Dennis Huang demonstrates the car's autopilot system on the Autobahn at 120 kilometers per hour.

Across from BMW's Munich headquarters, the hourglass-shaped BMW Welt – the company's Customer Experience and Exhibition Center, attracts the largest crowd of curious viewers. They are here not to see the latest model BMWs, but the paradigm-shattering designs of the i3 and i8.

The fully electric urban (i3) and sports car (i8) models have been available since 2013. In addition to semi-autopilot and semi-online functions, the driver can remotely control automatic parking via mobile phone or smart watch. The user can also download assorted applications to add to the on-board control system via BMW's own app store.

Mid-range models from popular automakers like Ford and Volvo now also feature automatic roadside parking, automatic braking, collision avoidance, and rear blind spot warnings, as well as voice control operation, plus on-board information communications and entertainment systems that can be synced with mobile phone units.

Working out of the company’s Munich R&D center, Siemens’s Project RACE will make driving a car like playing a computer game, and car design like mobile phone development. (Pictured: Project RACE director, Dr. Cornel Klein).

"Machines never sleep, so they can always pay 100 percent attention to everything around them. We're fully confident that autopilot systems will reduce traffic accidents," asserts Dr. Werner Huber, head of Driver Assistance and Perception, BMW Group Research and Technology. "Greater safety, comfort and convenience are the objectives for the cars of the future."

While a wonderful future is in store for the world of automobiles, numerous obstacles must first be overcome to reach it. "The technology is ready, but the market is not ready yet," observes Eckart Mayer, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Taiwan.

The market not being ready includes such issues as how traffic rules and laws should be adjusted for a world in which cars are driven by computers. When an accident occurs, should the driver or the computer be held accountable?

In order to provide assorted on-demand services, cars of the future will constantly collect driver and travel information. How can and should this personal information be protected? Which information can be shared with service providers, and which will be off limits? These questions must be clarified legally.

Another issue is how well a city's entire infrastructure can accommodate these technological advancements and demands.

Technology can bring us better lives, as well as present new challenges, "The point is, are we ready? This is something the entire society must consider together," stresses Huber.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman