Look what's just around the bend

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am


Zooming in on your own apartment is one of the joys of Google Street View. But the prodigious attempt to photograph where we live could be about to extend beyond mere novelty.

The search engine giant is road-testing a self-drive car, which uses maps, cameras, sensors and a laser finder to recognise and react to oncoming traffic. A souped-up Toyota Prius has already been seen on the streets of Nevada and California in the US, clocking up more than 225,000 kilometres - with just a single accident. And that was blamed on the car behind.

Software, it seems, is more reliable than humans behind the wheel. But even though the Google car has a special licence, it's still decades in the future for most of us. Between then and now, the humble combustion engine has a lot of connections to make as we enter the era of the so-called smart car.

It's a revolution that's already happening. At its most basic, it's merely about what the car industry is calling infotainment. Installing intra-car systems that use iPads and personal Wi-fi hot spots to enable gaming, movies, web browsing and communication may be distracting to the driver, depending on your point of view.

But connecting to a home PC to download music and updating navigation software on the go should appeal to some. An early effort is the Parrot Asteroid (HK$2,999, parrot.com).

This is an Android-powered retrofit device that bundles slick Bluetooth hands-free calling, voice-controlled playback of digital music from an iPhone, and FM radio with web access and a series of apps and maps. Getting online means adding a USB wireless 3G dongle.

Devices like this could quickly replace in-car stereos, though smartphone apps will dominate in the medium term. 'The future of connected cars will require both worlds - on-board communications units and smartphones,' says Stuart Keeping, a partner at analyst company Arthur D. Little.

'Critical remote services such as remote shut-down and tracking and tracing will only work with an embedded system, since the smartphone usually doesn't stay in the car,' Keeping says. A data connection for embedded dashboard devices will cost extra. Younger drivers will likely favour the seamless transition offered by smartphone apps.

Mobile operators, including CSL in Hong Kong, are already embracing machine-to-machine communications to power connected cars. CSL uses a cloud-based platform developed by Jasper Wireless. Jasper's VP of marketing, Macario Namie, thinks the pace of change will differ across the globe. 'While in Europe applications are more focused on logistics and navigation, in Asia it is in-car infotainment that is driving automotive manufacturers to develop connected cars,' he says.

After finding you a space, the car of the future will park for you, send final directions to your smartphone so you can walk to the restaurant (and find your car at the end of the night). It will even locate and navigate to your offspring.

Other incarnations of connected car tech are more useful on the road - and will possibly save money.

Telematics is perhaps the most compelling. It's a GPS-enabled device that records your position and delivers real-time traffic advice. More than that, it can even provide spoken advice on how to save fuel, and drive more safely.

Such tech has already been used to track stolen vehicles, though it's the second-by-second driving record that's catching the attention of the car insurance industry. 'Pay How You Drive' is the endgame, where risk-takers - probably determined by comparing data to a benchmark achieved by a group of advanced drivers - are charged more than safe drivers.

At its most precise, telematics will allow insurers to apportion the blame after a crash.

But it will first automatically alert the authorities of your exact position and status, and call the nearest emergency centre if necessary. It could even book your car in with a mechanic - after consulting your diary, of course.

One early example of a connected car is the Nissan Leaf, an electric car that connects to the internet to supply the location of the nearest charging station, general navigational information, and eco-driving advice.

Drivers can remotely interact with the car via a smartphone app to check the vehicle's charging status, or set the air conditioning before they start the journey.

It's not just about personal convenience. The smart car will ultimately be an important cog in smart cities. Using telematics data to accurately map how and where cars go, and how fast they travel, will allow traffic management on a whole new level, and it's already started to happen.

'In Singapore,' says Namie, 'they are investing in traffic management systems such as charge tolls based on times of traffic, and the rerouting of lanes to send cars in certain directions - all of which is carried out in real time.'

Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian nations are a few steps behind and are yet to develop the same kind of connected infrastructure, Namie says. But they are well on the way.

Eventually, human decision making will be phased out altogether. In-car instructions will tell the driver what route to take to keep traffic flowing smoothly around the city.

At the end of the rainbow is something called platooning, which nudges us nearer to Google's driverless car. When cars are not just connected to central networks, but to each other, it will be possible for groups of cars at traffic lights to automatically accelerate or brake simultaneously. That means a smaller distance between them.

The aim of this is to get cars to drive more safely and efficiently so more cars fit on the roads. But it's possible that the car in front will dictate to - or, in effect, control - all the cars behind.

The logic is hard to argue with. But I can't help thinking that a form of transport which makes use of platooning, smart navigation and driverless cars - a streamlined, high speed and eco-friendly way of getting around - has actually been in use for decades. It's called the Mass Transit Railway.