1 May 2020

Connected cars: is the future more WestWorld, Black Mirror or Knight Rider?

Smart Living

by Jenna Keighley

The new season of Westworld has definitely been worth the wait (don’t @ me), with Delores, Maeve and Bernard doing their best to confuse the hell out of me and Vincent Cassel stealing the show as always. However, aside from all the twists and turns of the main storyline, it’s interesting to me to see the Westworld vision of future smart cities, with connected buildings, transport and people all seamlessly, silently intertwined (and no, I’m not even going to start on the fact that everyone’s life is manipulated by a huge, global AI).

The automotive technology in particular stands out as futuristic, yet achievable in the not too distant future. The idea that a car simply glides up when called, then drives you to your destination with security safeguards in place to ensure the safety of the passengers (that is until Delores rips out the panel and all hell breaks loose)… Elon Musk agrees; indeed he thinks it’s so achievable that the current Tesla Model 3 comes complete with an interior camera that will be used to keep an eye on paying passengers when you allow your car to be used as part of Tesla’s “shared autonomy fleet” when you’re not using it. While the tech may (almost) already be there, the infrastructure, regulatory framework and societal models are nowhere near prepared so Musk’s suggestion that this could be right around the corner seems a little overly-optimistic. However, while the ultimate goals may be a little out of reach, today’s smart, connected cars have a huge potential to make us, and our property, safer, more secure and better for the environment.

After-market dongles like the AA’s Smart Breakdown (previously the Car Genie) plugs into the car’s onboard computer and is able to predict and alert drivers to potential faults before they develop into full-on breakdowns, leaving people sitting at the side of the road looking just about as miserable as one human can. In the fleet world, the SafeDrivePod effectively reduces the driver’s mobile access to simple navigation and calls whilst the vehicle is in motion. Given how long the hands-free legislation has now been in place and yet drivers continue to be spotted using their phone at the wheel, it seems prudent that companies protect themselves and their employees from a level of connectivity addiction that has become a deep-rooted part of human nature.

The rise of black box insurance also offers new ways for drivers to reduce their insurance premiums by proving that their driving style is safe and responsible. As Jeremy Clarkson would suggest, this tech can be seen to “take the fun out” of driving; no more “let’s see how fast this baby can go” on winding country lanes (yeah Clarkson, I AM looking at you), or braking last-minute when you realise no way in hell you’re making that light. Upsetting the contrarian petrolhead audience is no bad thing and with the more widespread deployment of lidar, ultrasound and other connected sensors in new models, other bad habits (aggressive driving, tailgating… driving EXCRUCIATINGLY slowly in the middle lane of the motorway when the inside lane is completely clear…) can also be used to build up a picture whereby the car itself can ensure it is adequately insured, serviced and maintained without the driver’s conscious involvement.

Add to this, features like Tesla’s Sentry mode (if they remade Knight Rider today, Kit would be a Tesla), which flashes the car’s lights, turns on the main screen and uses the onboard cameras to capture footage if it senses anything entering its “personal space”. In theory, insurance claims should be much smoother if you can share video that proves the cause of damage – whether vandalism or accidental. However, for the Black Mirror fans among us, these developments open an interesting parallel path that can quickly turn dark… A scenario where your car could report you to your insurance company, or even the police, for a serious-enough infraction is both theoretically the “right” thing to do, yet unnerving and wrong on so many levels. Today, the question of how to instil morals and ensure ethical decision-making into autonomous cars is without an answer as developers also need to factor personal (often unconscious) and varying cultural biases into their calculations. 

Even without spinning out completely into a parallel timeline where the machines are out to get us, the question of what happens to the terabytes of data generated daily by the ever-growing numbers of connected cars already on the road is still relatively unclear. That there are bad actors who will exploit weaknesses in data security and privacy is common knowledge and yet no company appears capable of staying one step ahead, leading to important questions surrounding whether such connected technologies have a place if they – and by association, we – can’t be adequately protected by those evangelising their role in our smart future.