When Thejo Kote turns on his Audi A4 near his apartment in San Francisco, his home starts to cool down because the car has told his thermostat that he’s heading out for the day and it’s time to start conserving energy. His company, Automatic, makes a little dongle that plugs into a slot beneath the steering wheel of most cars on American roads (probably including yours) to enable this kind of cross talk. As Kote drives around to showcase the gizmo’s other talents–like sending his smartphone information about his fuel-wasting jackrabbit accelerations–he points out the little gestures exchanged between humans in cars and on foot. These nods and knowing glances that make it clear who should go and who should wait are still beyond the reach of algorithms, he says: “We’ve come maybe 85% of the way. But that last 15% is very, very hard. Because cars and computers in general aren’t very good at things that humans take for granted.”
There is no denying that self-driving cars are coming, but people like Kote believe the death of the steering wheel is further off than futurist CEOs might suggest. The legal, ethical and technical challenges may keep that reality out of most people’s driveways for decades. Which means that for now, focusing on a truly driver-free future is like imagining the last scene of a play already in the throes of Act II.
Cars are well into the biggest automotive revolution since Henry Ford debuted his assembly line. This historic transition from analog to digital promises to do to driving what the iPod and streaming did to music. Cars are fast becoming nodes in a network that could make driving more fun, more convenient, more safe–and in some ways more complicated–than ever. As General Motors CEO Mary Barra put it last year, “The industry will experience more change in the next five years than it has in the last 50.”
Imagine a car that knows where you want to go before you even touch the GPS. Imagine a car that can sense that another vehicle is about to T-bone it and shifts the driver’s seat away from the impact before it happens. Imagine a car that’s its own wi-fi hot spot. Imagine cars that, because they are digitized, can be remotely hacked and the steering and the brakes taken over. All of that–and more–is already here.
UPGRADING THE UPGRADES
At Google’s I/O developer conference last May, early adopters clamored to try the company’s take on cardboard virtual-reality machines. Nearby, lines of people waited to get into upcoming versions of vehicles like the Audi Q7 ($54,800), Hyundai Sonata ($21,750) and Chevy Spark ($12,660), all parked on an elaborate carpet designed to look like a freeway. Side by side, automakers and Google were demonstrating the fruits of their partnership: cars equipped to run Android Auto, new technology that essentially turns a car’s infotainment system into a giant smartphone, with purposeful limitations.
With an Android smartphone plugged in, Android Auto enables your car to read texts to you as well as send replies dictated to it by voice. It can give you constantly optimized, step-by-step directions, without requiring you to check the phone lying in your lap or on the passenger seat. And it can give you helpful suggestions courtesy of a system that, as Google product manager James Smith says, is designed to turn your car into a “new personal assistant.” If you’ve just been Googling a restaurant, for instance, Android Auto will suggest that eatery as a logical destination when you slip into the driver’s seat. Apple’s competing system, CarPlay, offers many similar features for iPhone users.
The best part: users will be able to get new features without getting a new car, since these software systems are designed to take upgrades. This means that rather than having their tech frozen in time once they drive off the lot, owners of a 2016 Honda Accord could potentially get the same experience as the driver of a 2018 Porsche 911. At the 2016 North American International Auto Show, CarPlay and Android Auto were two of the most discussed improvements rolling out to new vehicles this year.
What you can’t do using these systems is anything that might amount to distracted driving, the companies say. For now, that means no video streaming and no Angry Birds. And every available app must adhere to strict protocols. “We take a pretty conservative view of what should go on there,” says Google’s Dylan Thomas, “because we’re under a lot of scrutiny.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has guidelines about everything from how many seconds drivers’ eyes should be taken off the road to how big display text on in-car screens should be.
Google and Apple argue that their technology will actually make driving safer. If the alternative to using these systems is old-fashioned texting while driving–something that 61% of drivers with smartphones admit they do despite finger-wagging PSAs–then, the logic goes, using voice-enabled apps has to be a step in a safer direction. While tech firms are being more cautious than usual, car manufacturers are cautiously moving faster. In some ways, “we absolutely need to move as quickly as the technology companies,” says Ford’s connected-vehicle expert Don Butler. “At the same time, when more than 3,000 different parts and subsystems come together to make a vehicle, there’s a huge amount of rigor that is necessary.”
Everyone must tread carefully when their actions could cause a vehicle, not just a phone, to crash. “The level of safety, security and maintenance of cars is orders of magnitude more than PCs,” says designer Gadi Amit, whose Bay Area firm, NewDealDesign, has worked on several projects that involve car technology. “What the tech world is used to calling an update is called a recall in the automotive world.”
SENSORS ON WHEELS
In some ways, cars have been “smart” for decades. In the 1970s, automakers started turning to electronics for better engine control. Then came other computerized features like antilock brakes and power steering. New cars are now covered in sensors and cameras that aid drivers in their decisionmaking, while the insides are filled with data-spewing operating systems. Though most drivers are oblivious to it, things like location, speed, wiper status, fuel level, passenger presence, traction, battery status and acceleration, for a start, are digitally tracked. A modern car has more code than a Boeing 787.
Now that these powerful computers are coming online, this data can tell analysts about everything from potholes that need filling to where a new road needs to be built. Andrew Poliak, who works for QNX, a tech company that is to connected cars what Microsoft is to PCs, says he wrote to President Obama when GM declared bankruptcy, arguing that the government could actually save money if it only leveraged the data America’s biggest automaker had collected through its OnStar system. “We spend so much money as a nation on traffic information,” says Poliak. “The amount of data that a connected car can generate–this giant sensor on wheels–could eliminate a lot of that excess spending.”
Auto manufacturers say they’re analyzing feedback to build better cars and predict problems before they occur. As more cars become connected, recalls could be downgraded to something more like a software update. Fiat-Chrysler, for instance, addressed a recent recall of 1.4 million cars by shipping owners USB drives. Tesla has sent Model S owners over-the-air updates that change how the cars actually handle.
On an individual level, data may make a dent in the typical $9,000 spent each year on maintaining a car by flagging problems like a battery that is about to go bad. The inscrutable and easily ignored check engine light will fast be made obsolete by cars that can self-diagnose and offer to set up an appointment at the local dealership before anyone gets stranded. Standard features that allow people to use cellular signals to locate, precool and remotely check in on the health of their vehicles are also becoming more common. “What we can do,” says Phil Abram, an executive director at GM, “is make sure you’re more empowered because you know where your car is, you know what the status of your car is. You’re in control of that.”
Companies are also rolling out driver-behavior tools that use beeps or reports to teach people how to drive more efficiently; some insurers use them to give good drivers discounts. (This also offers parents a new way to coach their teens.) And connected vehicles can talk to other devices like garage doors and security systems on the so-called Internet of Things. “Your home [should be] revolving and adapting to the coming and going of the family,” says Mike Soucie, who heads partnerships at Alphabet’s smart-home company, Nest. “Part of that coming and going is obviously through the car.”
MORE DATA, MORE FEES
Parks Associates, a firm specializing in connected industries, estimates that mobile networks such as AT&T and Verizon will be making nearly $1 billion each year in connected-car revenue by 2018. If someone wants to, say, wi-fi-enable a car for an eight-hour family road trip, a day of connectivity via AT&T could cost $5 to $50, depending on the user’s plan and how much data the kids in the backseat can pull down.
The connectivity of cars is potentially a gold mine for marketers too. When Hewlett-Packard partnered with Ford to track company cars in an experiment, fleet managers found out when vehicles were over- or underused. They got an overview of things like how often sales reps’ cars sat idle in airport parking lots (16% of the time) when they could have been lent to another employee. But with access to GPS, the company was able to learn much more–including where employees most often purchased gas (Shell) and which on-the-go eateries were their favorites (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King). This information could lead to partnerships in which marketers push coupons to customers driving near certain locations. Internet-radio apps have tested ads for eateries “two exits up.”
“It does get a little tricky about what is and isn’t privacy data,” says Zac Doerzaph of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “Most people in similar spaces are willing to give up a little bit of privacy if they get some benefit in return, so I suspect this will end up the same way.” Automakers are careful to emphasize that data belongs to the drivers.
Near Blacksburg, Va., there’s a 2.2-mile (3.5 km) stretch of asphalt known as the Smart Road. This is a place where auto manufacturers and governments can test high-tech features that might not be ready for the open highway. Doerzaph and his colleagues at Virginia Tech recruit local volunteers and put them behind the wheel, seeing how they react, for instance, when a car is steering itself and a robotic pedestrian pops into its path. Many of the features being tested are the newest takes on “driver assist” technology. Cars can now steer and stop and go (under certain circumstances) for the driver. Cameras in the car can detect patterns that suggest a driver is sleepy and sound an alarm. The Smart Road is also a laboratory for technology that is not yet widely deployed in any form and could be far more revolutionary. The cars and infrastructure there, like traffic lights, are equipped with short-range radios that allow them to exchange information. By sharing tidbits like their speed and heading, cars can communicate around blind curves and drivers can get warnings when two vehicles appear to be on a crash course.
NHTSA believes that this technology–known as vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V–stands to avoid or mitigate up to 80% of crashes among unimpaired drivers, even with error-prone humans involved. The agency will likely issue a rule that requires some form of V2V on new cars in the next several years. “What we’re doing is mandating the communication protocol for vehicles to understand each other, so they’re speaking the same language,” says Nat Beuse, NHTSA’s associate administrator of vehicle-safety research. GM became the first manufacturer to announce that it would deploy V2V on a retail model, the 2017 Cadillac CTS. If those cars get close to one another, they will be able to exchange warnings about dangers like slippery roads up ahead.
Now, the bad news. Hackers have already made it clear that making cars out of computers exposes new vulnerabilities. Last year, two of them teamed up with a reporter from Wired to hack a Jeep Cherokee, taking over the steering and braking as the journalist gave in to panic. (Hence Fiat-Chrysler’s recall by USB drive.) Other researchers worked their way into the operating system of Tesla’s Model S. They were able to make the speedometer disappear, control the doors and even shut it off. (The company quickly fixed the bug with an over-the-air update.)
NHTSA is working on security protocols, trying to figure out how vehicles can be sure they’re getting and sending trusted messages. Still, experts say there are legitimate concerns about terrorism or even activism, if hackers decide to bring a six-lane highway full of cars to a sudden halt. To avoid any unsavory scenarios, the car industry will need to work together. While a slew of manufacturers have created their own cybersecurity posts in recent years, they are also teaming up to create a security consortium that will share information about threats without sharing trade secrets, much as the finance industry does.
The industry is also coming up with privacy guidelines, which will be a touchy subject as cars get more connected. NHTSA seems to know that no matter how many times it reiterates that data won’t be stored or attached to a person after it’s beamed out via V2V, people will continue to be nervous about Big Brother’s having more information on their whereabouts. In a survey, Parks Associates asked vehicle owners about concerns they would have if their car were connected to the Internet. The second most popular answer, at 55%, was that drivers would be concerned about the security of their location data. It was beaten only by fears that there would be hidden costs associated with the connectivity.
“Your computer or your phone has vulnerabilities,” says John Capp, GM’s V2V expert. “There will probably always be a threat to electronic systems. It’s just part of the world we live in.” Parks Associates estimated that a quarter of cars on U.S. roads last year had some connectivity capability, the simplest form being a way to leverage the driver’s smartphone connection.
There is a growing pile of promises about autonomous vehicles coming from companies ranging from Uber to Ford to Google. But all the little improvements that are going live in the meantime might add up to a point at which we’ve found our driving lives revolutionized before we even get to the last act. David Cummins, a Xerox executive who heads the company’s smart-parking and mobility initiatives, believes the present is already outdoing those breathless predictions for the future. “Cars parallel park themselves now. Cars speed up and slow down on their own already. Cars have all kinds of accident-avoidance technology. And you are going to have more and more and more of that introduced over the next three to five years,” Cummins says. “By the time that first car rolls off the factory line without a steering wheel, it’s not going to be that much of a shock. The collective response may be more of a shrug. As in, ‘It’s about time.'”
This appears in the March 07, 2016 issue of TIME.