Cars And Connectivity

I was in the bookstore with a friend recently, wandering the aisles as he looked for a book on some arcane programming language.

I was in the bookstore with a friend recently, wandering the aisles as he looked for a book on some arcane programming language. In that section of the store, I stumbled upon a book by Jaron Lanier entitled You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Lanier is a dreadlocked computer visionary, guru and originator of virtual reality who argues that Web 2.0 technologies do not increase interactivity, customization and participation. Further, he writes, this is not "an emerging Golden Age of information sharing and collaborative achievement." In fact, he believes it results in cynical mob behavior that feeds on Web anonymity that resulted from paranoia growing out of the 1960s. It's a fascinating book, even if I only read the first few chapters while my friend searched for his selection.

Lanier's treatise got me thinking about how interactive technology is taking control of the modern automobile. Though we were told in the early days how cars would be able to connect together to share information about road conditions, weather, and potential hazards, it hasn't quite worked out that way. True, we're still in the early days of in-vehicle connectivity, but we already have seen the dark side of this electronic revolution: increasing driver distractedness.

Automakers are competing against each other to provide the greatest number of applications, the greatest in-dash screen area, and the best connectivity to the consumer electronics many of us carry with us every day. They are, in short, encouraging driver distractedness in the hopes of grabbing the greatest number of customers. Why? Because consumers want the largest number of things they can get for the price. [George Peterson of AutoPacific once recounted how most car owners don't know which wheels on their car are driven. However, if given the choice between two- and four-wheel drive, the majority will opt for four driven wheels because four is greater than two. The same holds true for the number of cylinders, cupholders, and most anything else you can think of. It's one of the main reasons Costco is so popular.]

If true, I can foresee a day when you buy a car like you buy a computer. If you run Windows, the price and features decide which computer you ultimately choose, but your real concern is with the operating system and what you can do with it. Apple buyers expect more innovation, more style, more interactive capability and greater simplicity of use, and are willing to pay the premium. However, they also are primarily concerned with the operating system and what it lets them do.

Think about that for a minute. The car used to be the vehicle by which you accomplished things. It took you from A to B, carried large loads, traveled to faraway places, hauled people on trips, and got you out into the world or away from it. Now it is becoming a shell for an electronic operating system that you can almost literally take anywhere.

Which brings me to the words of another analyst when looking at a Ford Fiesta tweaked by college students for greater connectivity with landmarks and passengers in other connected vehicles. He stated that it was the wrong answer to the wrong question. "People don't want a car with greater connectivity," he claimed. "They want a car that can drive itself so they don't have to be bothered while they play with their electronic devices as they head to their destination." He may be right. And that, in my mind, is so terribly, terribly wrong.