A car that is smarter than me

Most of my male friends – and quite a few females – are interested in cars. They tend to be very keen to see the latest models and, to some extent at least, make judgements about people based on the car that they drive. To me, however, they are tin boxes that take me conveniently [sometimes] from A to B. However, I am interested in technology and cars are certainly a focus of much high-tech development …

When my Dad bought his first car, when I was a kid in the ‘60s, it had 3 gears, no radio, the heater was an optional extra and washing the windshield involved pushing on a small manual pump. My first car, a few years later, was only a little more sophisticated. In the 40+ years since I first took to the road, things have moved on a lot. My current car is 9 years old. I bought it new and it had, for a modest vehicle, quite a good specification: electric [front] windows, climate control, reversing sensors, cruise control. This was all quite satisfactory and, although the car has done about 130,000 miles and has a number of “battle scars”, I am in no hurry to replace it. However, from time to time, I am distracted by something shiny and that is what occurred last week.

We have been on a short vacation – that is why there was “radio silence” last week, in case anyone noticed. For the trip I needed to rent a car. I did not select anything fancy – just the second size “tin box” on the catalog. It was very reasonably priced and I did not receive [or expect] an upgrade. But I was quite amazed by the vehicle I was given.

I must emphasize that the car was not a premium brand – it was a standard model from one of the largest manufacturers in the world. And, being a rental car, I doubt whether it was even top of the range for this modest vehicle. My amazement was stimulated by how much of the car was fully automatic. It had a manual gearbox – for some reason, in Europe this is the preferred option for many drivers. I could steer the car myself, but that was about it. Here are at least some of the automated features [there may have been more]:

  • Locking. There were no keys for the car, as such, just a tiny remote with two buttons on it. Even they were redundant – I could just keep the thing in my pocket. Walking up to the car enabled a button on each door handle to activate the central locking. The back door would only open when I was close by.
  • Ignition. Once inside the car, there was just a button on the dashboard to start it – so long as I was close by.
  • Parking brake [Handbrake]. There was no parking brake lever, just a button to put the brake on and release it. This was fine until I needed to do a hill start. In the early days of my driving experience, I lived in a very hilly area, so I have always been proud of fully mastering the art of the hill start. In this car, I did not know what to do. The answer was to do nothing – the car took car of it. I just needed faith.
  • Stop/Start. If I paused in traffic, took the car out of gear and raised the clutch, the engine would be shut off. Depressing the clutch again started it automatically. [Actually I am used to this feature, as my wife’s car – which is newer than mine – has the same facility.]
  • Proximity sensors. The car had very sensitive, all-round proximity sensors with detailed visual display and audible feedback. I am used to a reversing sensor, but this took the guidance to a new level. It was a little annoying when driving down a street that was really only a couple of feet wider than the car!
  • Lights. A common problem, when collecting a rental car, is finding all the controls. If it is after dark or getting that way, the task is that much more difficult and, of course, the lighting controls need to be located. Not so with this car. The lights just came on as and when required.

I am sure that there were other automatic systems. I wonder if the windshield wipers were automatic? We did not experience rain, so I never got to try them.

Although I marvel at all this technology, I am also wary of such complexity. I have no idea how many embedded systems there were in this car or the extent to which they are interconnected. Furthermore, I have no insight into how well designed they are and, hence, how reliable they might be. In just one week of using the car, I did have a few problems:

  • Display language. As the car was busy doing things to help me, it was making announcements on a display screen in front of me – in French. I have no idea why this language was selected, as I was not in a French-speaking country. I am sure that the language could be changed, but I had no clue how to do so.
  • Radio/audio system. There was what appeared to be a nice radio or audio system in the car. When I was starting out, I did not want any distractions, so I turned it off – press and hold the power button seemed obvious. However, I found that it would randomly start up again. Sometimes this occurred when I started the car, but it also happened when I was driving.
  • Fuel gauge. When I started the car, the fuel and temperature gauges would both swing to the maximum, back to zero, up to max again and then settle. I assumed that this was some kind of calibration procedure. On one occasion, I was alarmed to see the fuel gauge had settled to reading zero, when I was sure that I had fuel. There was no “low fuel” warning light, as I would expect. I turned the car off and on again. I now had a half a tank of fuel.
  • Reverse gear. The oddest fault was the “mysterious missing gear”. I wanted to reverse out of a parking space. So, I started the car, selected reverse and eased up the clutch. The car started moving forwards! I tried again with the same result. This kind of car has a very positive and unambiguous selection mechanism for reverse gear, so there was little room for “pilot error”. I turned off the car, paused and started it again. Problem solved.

Maybe for many – perhaps most – readers, this car was just like the one they drive every day. As I said at the start, I drive quite a low-tech vehicle. However, much as I was impressed by lots of these features, I feel that we have seen nothing yet. I find electric vehicles very exciting, as they have given designers an opportunity to start from scratch and reconsider what a car might be like. Driverless cars are commonly in the news. I am sure that they are going to be mainstream in a decade. In fact, I am counting on it, as there will come a time when it will be unwise for me to drive – even if the car is smarter that me!

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2016/09/22/a-car-that-is-smarter-than-me/