Wireless Technologies

Technologist sees car as one big computer empowering our lives

Imagine driving to work but instead of trying to find a space in the car park, you drive straight into the office and the automated car finds a parking bay itself. Also imagine that the car’s battery powers your entire office. This is the vision that Nissan paints at the FT Future of the Car Summit in London. Electric cars in the future that will power up entire cities with what is known as ‘vehicle-to-grid’ technology – where cars will be able to charge at ‘off-peak’ hours at specific charging points to power homes and other buildings during peak hours.

But society and infrastructure in general will slowly be transformed too. Will buses just become ‘big taxis’ in the future? Car Clubs are on the rise with “143,000 car club owners” now in London. These are all changing the way we think about car ownership. Apple just invested $1 billion in a Chinese car-hailing app which some say is a stake in the self-driving future.

With all these changes happening, how will autonomous cars change the way we think about computing and our cities?  Jared Ficklin, Partner and Lead Creative Technologist at argodesign knows a thing or two about this. Passionate about computer interfaces and innovative technology in general, he has designed products for big technology companies like Microsoft and HP.

After the summit ends, I sit down with him to ask his opinion on Nissan’s vision of powering up our cities through electrical cars.

“It’s one of those fundamentally interesting ideas. The entire system is going to have to be replaced in 30 years. So if you wave a magic wand and convert all of London into this system tomorrow, it would function great for a few years until the batteries start dying. Currently we have an electrical infrastructure that does not require replacement every 30 years. So I have some concerns with that. Perhaps if it was hydrogen fuel cell it would be different,” Ficklin says.

Where Ficklin sees the full potential of autonomous cars being realised is in parking: “I don’t think autonomous vehicles are actually going to park on the street. Because it’s far too easy to dig a little five-foot hole and have them drive into it.

“Once a car can park itself because it has ‘piloted parking’ then it can just go in a five foot hole and park. So take a standard garage, look at the floor and dig a five foot box, 10 foot wide and five feet deep and build a little ramp. The car can go down and you can have this whole garage to yourself,” Ficklin explains.

Why is nobody mentioning motion sickness in autonomous cars?

But as the auto manufacturers charge ahead in developing these cars, it will be pointless if the public themselves don’t take to them. Numerous surveys in the UK have shown that the public are not particularly keen on them. For Ficklin it is important that the cars themselves offer great digital experiences otherwise people will not adopt them: “If they judge it as a vehicle they will hate it.” But he also adds that much of it is down to “the fear of the unknown” where people worry about a lot of things and then go ahead anyway.

Ficklin says he is surprised that motion sickness in autonomous cars was not mentioned at the summit. A big selling point for autonomous cars is that they are supposed to free up more time for us to be able to read, watch TV or do anything else that strikes our fancy while the car drives itself. But reading a book in a car does not offer the same experience as reading on the train. The constant jerky movements is bound to cause motion sickness.

Ficklin believes that suspensions on the car could be the solution to the problem.

“A lot of that can be corrected with better suspensions that makes the car ride differently. The airlines had a lot of problems with air-sickness when they were brand new. There is the very famous barf bag in every seat but I’ve already flown 90,000 miles this year and I haven’t seen one get used on any of those flights. We can help people with a softer suspension or maybe a reactive suspension that is actually scanning the road and making you go nice and smoothly and getting rid of the bumps and sway.”

The car as one big app

Ficklin believes that auto manufacturers should learn from Apple as he sees the car as a great interface which has excellent potential for the next pattern of computing which will be “shared and corporative computing”.

He sees the entire car as one big app where it will be able to target every passenger and hear them speak clearly even if they are speaking at the same time: “Signal gathering could greatly improve voice recognition. Then you could put computer vision in the car and also do projection mapping…it actually becomes conversational computing.”

Ficklin is based in Texas, US and refers to Trulia, the real-estate app which enables users to search for a house and make appointments. The equivalent to Rightmove in the UK.

“Imagine if the car shows up, you get in the car and then it takes you to different houses and displays all the stats of those different houses. The car becomes an integrated reality experience, not pure transportation.”

What about more user data being collected about you as these systems become more sophisticated?

“I don’t think people are really afraid of giving their data. They are afraid of their fellow man abusing it. Create a society where privacy is seen as a virtue not just a legal requirement.”

“But you also need a government that has to be kept in check,” Ficklin adds.

I look at Ficklin sceptically. Data privacy is such a huge concern at the moment. Take the Apple-FBI case that was heavily reported in the media. Does there not need to be a line drawn somewhere?

“Ok I am an idealist! I am an optimist and believe that humans are inherently good. Also I have a twin brother so I have a way of being off the matrix. You can be off the matrix or be everywhere at the same time… like in the movie! I have little to worry about here!” Ficklin jokes.

Computers that anticipate our needs then act on them

But Ficklin takes it further. He would like it to get to a point where our brain signals alone enable our smartphones to anticipate and react to our needs so that the second we think we are about to order food for instance, the smartphone suggests a food place.

“Before that fine line there’s awesomeness in there. Like when you are about to send an email and it says ‘No, Ayesha’s not done with the interview’. That’s awesome! Before the fine line there’s lots of exciting possibilities in there.”

But Ficklin warns that AI should be given its own ethics not human ones. Otherwise “we’re in big trouble”.

We near the end of our meeting. Are there any other technologies Ficklin is excited about?

Ficklin mentions projection, a piece of technology that projects light onto a surface.

“It is underutilised in the world, coming down in cost and it’s going to serve a new role. Sony has shown some great stuff at the last CES’. In the car it’s particularly exciting because you don’t have to worry about size and power issues,” he concludes.


Also read:

Driverless cars: Is semi-autonomous the future?

London’s driverless pods are coming but how will the public react?


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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