Why cars will undergo the same reinvention as cell phones

In 2015 you can buy a car that will automatically keep itself within a lane, safely spaced from vehicles around it. It will sense pedestrians and stop itself if you don’t react quickly enough. It can even back a trailer for you...

We’re rapidly moving toward a future where the car will be able to drive without your help. Every major car company, most of their suppliers, and even some tech companies like Google are working on the technology for fully autonomous automobiles. But besides possibly missing a steering wheel and pedals, what will the car of the future look like?

The computer systems in cars today are like finely tuned machines. Every processor, every line of code, every wire has been perfectly sized and tested to perform an exact function safely and reliably, while costing as little as possible. This approach has worked really well since the 1970s, when these systems were first introduced. Today there might be close to one hundred networked computers on a high-end car.

But computers in cars are usually low performance – the chip that powers the Raspberry Pi is considered really fast in the automotive world. The network that interconnects these computers is called CAN (Controller Area Network), and it’s about as fast as your old dial-up modem.

The advanced algorithms that make a car able to sense and understand its environment and make safe decisions to drive itself take a lot of computing horsepower. Most of the vehicles that I’ve worked with use at least two or three desktop-grade computers along with some supercomputer-level graphics processors. These computers have to handle a gigabit or more of data per second from devices such as cameras, radar, LiDAR, GPS, and motion sensors.

Remember how cell phones used to be just for making phone calls?

High performance computers and networks in a car will trigger the age of cars as general-purpose computers. A lot of the software that is spread around the vehicle on many low power computers will be consolidated onto centralized computer “brains” in order to save cost. Each computer that is eliminated from the vehicle is one less circuit board, processor, housing, and wiring harness. This is a massive shift away from the “one function – one box” way that carmakers currently build vehicles and toward a computing paradigm in which the smarts of a car are more like apps on your smartphone.

When the iPhone was first introduced in 2007, it was a sexy smartphone with an intuitive interface - exactly the kind of product that Apple is great at making. But when the App Store was launched a year later, it became something much, much more powerful. Suddenly this portable telephone was more than a communication device, it was a general-purpose computer with integrated sensors that you carried with you all the time. The power of the phone as a platform instead of a purpose-built device launched a “Cambrian Explosion” of uses that existed previously only in science fiction. Today we can use our smart phones to listen to personalized radio stations, pay for our coffee, or predict the weather with one-minute accuracy.

The same transition, from dumb device to smart platform, is happening in automotive. The key to this transition is known in the industry as "processor headroom", which is the extra capacity left over after the processor is done with all of its tasks. Today’s cars ship with very little processor headroom because they’ve been tested and verified to do a known set of tasks dependably well. 

In the app-centric future of automotive computing it’s harder to predict what the loads on the car’s computers will be, so they’ll need to be oversized. The automaker might release new apps to give drivers additional features or write security programs to combat an unexpected vulnerability. Customers might want to add functionality to their cars like connecting to their home automation system or collecting and selling map data.

Buying a car today is like buying an iPhone with no App Store, or a laptop that will only run Windows 8. Ever. What happens when you need a software update? Back to the dealer. What if you want the car to give you directions? Hope you brought your smartphone (or bought the navigation package). But the self-driving car of the future? Remember how cell phones used to be just for making phone calls? Get ready for a future in which cars used to be just for getting you places.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Image from gettyimages.

Josh Hartung will be speaking at The Think Big Festival - an annual robotics, AI, and innovation think tank, conference and robotic experience. Use the code “BransonBot” for 50% off.

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