Your Car May Be Automated Before it’s Electric, and It's a Good Thing

There’s a revolution afoot, one which promises to (finally) revolutionize the century-old combustion engine. But it may require mass connectivity first.

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Last week, Samsung got the attention of the tech world when it unveiled its Galaxy Gear smart watch at IFA in Berlin. We had a chance to play around with one and were moderately impressed, but it's just an early example of a new category. It’s the potential of this space that really has us chomping at the bit. Just imagine the possibilities of a standalone smart watch with an OLED display. Better yet, imagine the possibilities of a smart watch that works in cohesion with all of your devices.

Along with augmented reality (AR) goggles like Meta or Google Glass, smart watches convey wearable tech from the portents of science fiction to the products of the near future. Eventually, we can expect AR devices to operate on the same processor that powers your phone, watch, and tablet—a kind of memory drive that can be worn on your wrist, stashed in your pocket, fastened to your glasses, or inserted into a tablet device.

When you think about it, smartphones, tablets, smart glasses, and smart watches (please, enough with the smart prefix!) are all just dissociated fragments of the same computational “brain.” Eventually, they’ll be organically combined into one ecosystem.

Samsung Galaxy Gear
Samsung's Galaxy Gear smart watch.

But there’s one thing this scenario overlooks: transportation. We’re reaching the adolescence of “smart” tech—we’ve enjoyed the wonders of the smartphone for more than five years now, and we’ve grown accustomed to a world so replete with connectivity that we can begin to imagine the adult years to come.

Our chief mode of transportation—the automobile—is still comparatively dumb.

However, our chief mode of transportation—the automobile—is still comparatively dumb. Information technology is now being processed at the atomic level, with molecule-sized transistors and quantum-powered computers. But in the automobile industry, innovation is assembled on the rusty, century-old platform of the internal combustion engine—a filthy technology that, like Old Yeller, needs to be compassionately sacked (with proper thanks given to its former glory, of course).

That said, the early sparks of revolution can be found in names like Tesla, Nissan Leaf, GEM, and even hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt. These electric vehicles (EVs) show great promise for 21st century vehicle technology, not simply because they’re more environmentally friendly, but because they’re cheaper to maintain for consumers, and hold potential for traffic automation and many of the “smart” trends already found in consumer gadgets. Said another way, the real pièce de résistance in car innovation is connectivity, even if it’s not proceeding as quickly as it is in the mobile market.

Toyota Prius Plugin
The center stack on the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced.

Some experts maintain that automation, connectivity, and driverless vehicles are perhaps more importent than EVs overall. In a blog post for The Energy Collective, John DeCicco takes the pragmatic approach, claiming that because there still isn’t an obvious economic incentive for electrification—whether for automakers, consumers, or taxpayers—the focus should be on more cost-effective options, like automation and connectivity:

“Autonomous capability will liberate consumers from the need to drive, which will then disconnect them from the 20th century cultural expectations that define the high-power, full-function vehicles of today. Once mobility is networked, EVs are much more likely to thrive, especially in urban and suburban regions where most trips are fairly short and well suited to the technology.”

A recent report from Telefonica Digital predicted that the number of cars with built-in connectivity will skyrocket to 90 percent by 2020. While that doesn’t mean these cars will all be driverless, major manufacturers like BMW, Audi, and GM have all projected that they will be selling their own autonomous vehicles by 2020.

The number of cars with built-in connectivity will skyrocket to 90 percent by 2020.

Google has also been busy clocking hundreds of thousands of autonomous-driving miles. The most recent company to throw their hat into the automated vehicle ring is Nissan, which announced last month that they will begin selling driverless cars by 2020. To come full circle, the company also unveiled its contribution to the smart watch market. The Nissan Nismo watch is intended to work with the user’s car, sort of like how the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch is meant to work with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phone. Specifically, it will monitor vehicle performance—such as speed and fuel consumption—as well as the owner’s heart rate, temperature, and other biometrics. Here's Nissan's promotional video (if you can stomach the insufferable dubstep).

According to BBC News, the eventual goal of this technology is to provide drivers with wearable tech that will monitor fatigue, concentration levels, and other conditions that could impair one’s driving ability.

In the world of automobile innovation, automation and connectivity are proceeding much faster than electrification.

However, the longer-term realization of this technology is the unification of disparate gadgets—such as the tablet, smartphone, AR glasses, watches, and even the wallet—into a cohesive mobile “brain.”

In the world of automobile innovation, automation and connectivity are proceeding much faster than electrification. But, as DeCicco explained, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Experts believe this will create a more fertile market for EVs, which show even greater potential in a networked environment. In that sense, it seems like driverless vehicles should take second stage to connectivity—it’ll make it that much easier to put down Old Yeller.

[Banner image: Wikipedia Commons, user "Nrbelex"]

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