Digital Technology and the Automobile

The year was 1955, the suburban sprawl was in full bloom.  People from both rural and urban areas were flocking into newly created suburban landscapes to live out the American dream.  One of the most important elements of this societal phenomenon was the automobile.  Buying a car in the 50’s had a sense of achievement associated with it.  People took pride in their automobiles, and so did the manufacturer’s design teams.  It was a different time, and one that made owning a car a staple of American culture.

For this reason, the automobile is still an incredibly important part of our modern day lives, albeit in different ways.  There have been countless changes since the initial rise of the automobile, some of which have made the car of today potentially unrecognizable to time traveler’s from the mid twentieth century (looking at you Marty).

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Most recently, the advent of ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have created a billion dollar industry that has helped to streamline transportation, especially in urban areas.  In addition, the advent of eco-friendly technology has helped to create a world of cars that are more polar-bear friendly, reducing our carbon footprint on the environment.

However, the future of the automobile also lies in tandem with the advent of some extremely powerful digital technologies.  Any active motoring enthusiast could astutely tell you that many such innovations have already been implemented on the cars of today, and they would be absolutely right.

Nearly every single car manufactured today has fully electronic gauges and a centrally located digital console.  These consoles are used for controlling entertainment, for navigating a route, and most importantly for safety.  My mother’s own car is equipped with one of these systems, and it makes a huge difference.  The rear mounted camera helps with backing up, while the side mounted cameras are incredibly helpful at minding the blind spots on the highways.  Quite remarkably, such technologies were considered luxuries a mere five years ago.  But now, they come standard on a regular Honda CR-V crossover.

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In the future then, we can reasonably expect the widespread application of many revolutionary technologies into the automotive world.  Two of the most potentially game-changing technological innovations in the auto world are the self driving car and the fully electric car.  However, these are well known and commonly discussed topics, especially among the tech community at large.  Therefore, I will focus the rest of this post on a few other lesser known yet still very important innovations we may see in the automobile of the future.

For example, some current luxury cars have implemented something called a “Heads Up Display”, or HUD for short.  This technology is an augmented reality platform which displays electronic statistics on the front windshield of a car as its driving along.  Such technology could eventually go on to become a ubiquitous presence in future automobiles of all shapes and sizes, and may even replace the traditional gauge cluster all together.

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Another variety of this technology is more traditional AR hardware (goggles) designed to work as a HUD in tandem with an automobile.  While historically expensive, this technology is beginning to become affordable and mass produced, and may also become widespread in the future.

Furthermore, AR tech is said to be in development for major applications by some big name companies.  Although it recently gave up on its well publicized car project, Apple still has a very strong automotive technology division, which consists partly of possible AR applications.  Automakers themselves have gotten in on the action with big names like BMW making significant strides in the space as well.

But this technology is not just important for the car itself.  BMW has also created an app using Google’s AR platform, Tango.  The app allow users to superimpose BMW models into real life spaces and encourages the user to explore of each model’s features.  This serves BMW as an intelligent and interactive marketing campaign, which they certainly need.  As younger drivers have leaned towards ride sharing and buying used rather than buying new, automakers of all varieties will have to spice up their marketing campaigns, and this BMW app seems like a great way to engage a younger audience.

Besides AR, another huge application of innovative technology is V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communication.  If implemented in a large number of road-going cars, this technology could work wonders to make our roads a safer place for everyone.  Consider a scenario in which one car is tailgating another on the highway.  If the front car has to stop short for traffic, an accident, or any other reason, V2V technology would communicate the coming deceleration to the car behind, and prevent a potential collision. As one can imagine, automakers looking to promote the safety of their vehicles would be foolish not to invest in this form of technology.

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Perhaps a more lighthearted innovation can be found with the recent rise of engine-sound enhancement technology.  Mostly implemented in higher-end sports cars, this device is equipped to artificially pump exhaust sound into the cabin of the vehicle as a way to increase the thrill of piloting a performance machine.  This innovation was deemed necessary by motoring enthusiasts and engineers due to high-quality insulation in modern sports cars that is designed to reduce road noise and improve comfort, but also naturally diminishes the exhaust note.

As a whole, the automotive industry is in for a significant amount of disruption over the coming years.  Yet while names like Tesla, Uber, and Zipcar may be transforming the landscape in a variety of ways, I firmly believe that the automobile will continue to be a fundamental part of American culture in spite of all this.  In fact, I believe that the technological revolution unfolding before our very eyes will serve to enhance said car culture, rather than destroy it.  So don’t worry car guys and gals, our passion will around for quite a while.

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8 comments

  1. Great read! I remember first seeing rear view cameras and thinking that they were so expensive and fancy. It’ll be interesting to see what features even beyond what you mentioned fall into the base package of a car. And I may be incorrect here, but I think a while back I read about Uber planning to supply their own fleet of automated cars. I wonder if the new system of ownership (as opposed to driver actually owning their vehicle) will make an impact on pricing models to account for the costs.

  2. Nice post. It did make me think about the impact ride sharing is having on the public transit system more than on the automobile industry. The public transit system is already under pressure from small margins the loss of more riders will be an added strain.

  3. Great post. I just finished writing an article on Volvo, and how they had to completely change the way they thought about car development and innovation in relation to digital tools. I’ll share once it’s published in March. I thought it was pretty interesting to think about digital innovation in that industry.

  4. Great post – very comprehensive. To your point, the auto industry rapidly approaching the edge of major, major disruption with the rise of self driving cars and other tech-enabled advancements. I feel that people often don’t give enough credit to the technologies that are already on the market today – Tesla’s have full self-driving capability called “autopilot” , newer Mercedes’ models correct your steering when you veer outside of the lane (among many other things), and many cars on the market today have the ability to park themselves. These capabilities are becoming more of a standard- and with the pace of tech today, I anticipate the auto industry looking entirely different in the not so distant future.

  5. Great post! It is very interesting to look at digital innovation in the automobile industry. Your post made me think about how ride sharing platforms have impacted such an industry. This post comes at an appropriate time as many automobile makers and transit companies are looking into self-automated vehicles. I feel that society as a whole often times overlooks some of the amazing technology we now have in cars.

  6. Really enjoyed this post! It is impressive how the automobile industry is innovating at an exponential rate. Only a decade ago self driving cars seemed to be a science fiction fantasy and today they are a reality. Many people are not aware of technologies that are already in the market, specially because innovation comes at a hight price. However, with time these large transportation companies such as Uber, Lyft, or Tesla will find out ways to produce the same gadgets at a lower price so that we will be able to see more of this in the road. My only concern is if the government will be able to adapt regulations as fast as innovation, since having different self-driving algorithms may become dangerous if cars do not communicate with each other. Anyways, I am looking forward to what the future is holding for us in terms of automobile advances.

  7. Wow, your post is so thorough and thought provoking! Though people talk a lot about the potential shift to self-driving cars in the future, little actually discuss what additional features will be implemented. I had no idea about HUD until reading your post, but viewing this in the long-term, it could very much replace our traditional gauge cluster. You also mentioned V2V communication and how that can dramatically increase the safety for drivers on the road, but my biggest concern is how all the automakers will negotiate and ultimately decide on one V2V platform that will be compatible with all cars so they are all on the same system.

  8. I think the most significant innovations will be related to safety but I’m curious to see if the auto industry or the government will drive some of these innovations. Many of these technologies can serve as differentiators that auto execs may want to keep to themselves. However, I definitely think the future will hold technology for cars to share location and speed data to prevent accidents and the government may need to step in to compel auto companies to share data for the greater good.

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