Saturday, February 4, 2006

The Digitally Enhanced Automobile

With computer components becoming smaller and smaller, more and more car manufacturers should think about designing entire computers into new model cars. The only reasons I can think of that it hasn't been done yet is that either no one's brave enough to suggest it to penny pinching CEO's or that the computer parts aren't small or durable enough for a car. I think both of these reasons are kibosh.
It is obvious that people want more out of their cars. Since I spend most of my time commuting in my car (45 minutes a day), I often wonder about the different things I could do if I had a full blown pc in the car. I've actually done it from time to time with my laptop, but it proved slightly difficult for reasons I'll explain below.
Here are some of the features I would like to see in my car:
  • GPS - A lot of new cars come with GPS technology anyway. Adding GPS capability to a personal computer will allow for more extensive maps and tracking of system information. If my 16 year old son takes the car out for a spin, having a GPS on board will help me find him when he's broken down or when his girlfriend's father calls me asking where my no good son has taken his daughter.
  • ODB-II Interface - A mechanic friend of mine enlightened my mind when it came to this tool. He has a handheld ODB-II scanner that reads the information from the On Board Diagnostics computer in the car and can tell him why the Check Engine light is on. He said there is a USB version that you can plug into a computer and do the same thing. What a wonderful idea. Instead of a vague Check Engine light, that could mean anything from a loose gas cap to something serious, the computer could actually look up the English translation of the output code from the ODB-II computer and tell you how serious this problem is. With the right software, your car could even contact the local auto parts store and buy the replacement part needed, or schedule an appointment with the mechanic. It shouldn't be too difficult to design a system that does this. Couldn't be any harder than designing a TV to fit in your cell phone.
  • Command/Control Interface - While we're at it, consolidating the controls to A/C, heating, power mirrors, door locks, sunroof, lights, cruise control, and any other mechanism for which there's a cacophony of switches and buttons on current cars. Skinnable controls built into the computer could allow easy access to all the controls on a car. Seats and mirrors could be easily adjusted to memorized positions based on whoever is driving. Not to forget the dials and displays that currently plague the dashboard. You want your speed to be a digital readout instead of a dial, so be it. You don't care to see what the tachometer is reading but your husband does, fine.
  • Entertainment Console - Everyone knows the entertainment value of the computer. Couple that with the mobility and power of a car, and the resulting entertainment power is incomprehensible. Movies, Music, email, internet, instant messaging, gaming, all available from the passenger seat. With available headset jacks or the car stereo for sound, the possibilities are endless. Of course, the entertainment console would require expert design in order to meet with the demands of the users. Windows media is simple and versatile enough to do this, however it needs one basic feature that Microsoft has yet to pay any attention to. If this entertainment console could be setup to appear to be a portable device (such as a flash mp3 player, or flash card) and could connect to the media library on a home computer, the entire music library could be replicated to the car. Any changes made in the car or on the home computer libraries would automatically replicate to the other. Individual user ratings tracked in the Windows Media database would also make it easy to create playlists that the driver likes. (I like rock, my wife likes country). When my car is parked in my garage, it will automatically synchronize with the library on my home computer then shutdown until the car is started again. Music on the go, ready to go. Sounds nice doesn't it?
  • Autopilot - Of all the features I think should exist in my car, this one would be the most advantageous. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about the Night Rider car that will be able to do stunts and maneuver through the worst traffic. I wish I had a car that would keep my car between the lines on the interstate. As I've mentioned before, I commute to work, a large chunk of my day that is wasted listening to the local radio DJ's complain about how crappy their lives are. Once I set the cruise control on my car, the only thing I really have to pay attention to is how close I am to the car in front of me and keeping myself between the lines. There are currently systems out there that do these functions quite well. With a computer in the car, the interface between this system and the driver would be greatly enhanced. Imagine cruising the internet while cruising down I-20!
  • Driver Assistance - There's a huge blind spot on my dad's truck. It makes it virtually impossible to change lanes without completely turning around and sticking your head out the window to see if there's anyone beside you. Wouldn't it be nice to have a little USB webcam mounted to the front corners of your car to give you the best possible view of what's beside you? What about a camera mounted behind the car to help when backing up? Webcam - $25. USB Extension cable $7. Seeing that someone's walking behind your car before you back up - priceless.
  • Bluetooth Cell Phone Connectivity - With a couple of USB ports on your onboard computer, it would be very simple to add Bluetooth® connectivity for use as a wireless headset with your cell phone while driving. Add a couple of controls to the console and you wouldn't even have to open the cell phone to dial out. Use the Outlook contacts (already synchronized with your phone address book) to dial without ever having to remember anyone's cell phone number. Voice recognition could even make dialing obsolete.
So, why hasn't this been done yet. If you know, tell me. If I get to it first, I'll be richer than Bill himself.