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Pondering the Future, the Shock of the New, and Defining The Terms

I think I have to start with The New X here. I've gone on about The New Telephone and The New Television without really defining my conception, my mindset. I think it's obvious what I mean with those, but when I hit the next topic on my mind, you get a certain Bob Barker connotation.

Image by Wayne Silver

I have a concept in my mind of life between 1955 and 1985 (only about half of which I lived through) where the Old Telephone and Television live. The Old Television, for example, consists of complete boxes, with the beginnings of plug-ins from VCRs and Atari game machines. The New Television, still being designed and tested, will involve multiple sources, time-shifting, and modularization such that the screen is but a monitor, one of many.

But TV is fundamentally information. As long as you can see it and hear it, who cares whether it comes from the air, a coax cable or a Cat5e jack? The New Car is different. It is first and foremost a mechanical thing, and thus the issues involved are different.

A person from 1970 stepping into today wouldn't understand cell phones and would be befuddled by the collection of remotes on the TV, but I am very certain she could get into a 2010 car, start it, and drive it around. "Three on the Tree" isn't nearly as popular as it used to be, but the gas pedal, brake pedal, speedometer, turn signals, AC, rear-view mirror would all be about where she'd expect them to be and would behave about how she'd expect them to behave. There would be a few hiccups possible — electric motors and hybrids, OBDII and continuously variable transmissions are three things that come to mind — but they don't particularly affect the driving experience too much. The mechanics of automobiles have been abstracted away from the act of driving, and that's a good thing.

What is changing is the information-related aspects of driving, as fast and as good as the car companies can do it. As the driver of a car that was the cheapest new car we could find, much of what I know is from driving rentals when my car is in the shop, and from watching Top Gear. I see in-dash navigation, but you don't really want to be looking down at the dash too much when driving, and an in-dash system won't have the quick update times of navigating with your phone. Car audio systems have connecting to your iPod and iPhone down just as Android is beginning to dominate the market.

For the car market, electronics is a trailing concern. You want it to be so, clearly, because making the car faster, safer and more economical are the leading concerns. But it makes the choices dated. I saw a video from CNet's Car Tech section where the reviewer talks about the Toyota Camry, mentioning the 6-disc CD player (in the last days of optical media?) and optional dual DVD players in the back seat for too much money, which he suggests you skip and get iPads instead.

I told a friend a few months ago that I wanted to put a computer in a car. He asked "What would you do with that?" The thing that I mentioned is combining OBDII data with GPS so I can connect what I was doing and where I was doing it to what the engine was doing. I'm not a mechanic, so I don't really know what I'd do with that information. That information becomes really usable when you breach the firewall and start connecting to engine, transmission and brake electronics. Currently, you can get aftermarket chips to change the behavior of your engine and such, but that's warranty-voiding stuff, and also, tight inner-loop microprocessor kind of work. It won't wait until the OS pages, queries a database and returns a proper response.

Plus, of course, the standard interface vectors for electronics elsewhere are attention-sucking accident-causing crap for autos.

So, I forsee the creation of The New Car, joining long-term reliable mechanics with high-turnover electronics, as a long-term process that will cause grumbling for a long long time.