I asked Lee how the kind of smarts on display in all these cars would first reach regular drivers. He played a short video for me that explained the lab’s work on what its engineers call the Affective Intelligent Driving Assistant. The product of a joint venture with two Massachusetts Institute of Technology labs, AIDA feeds inputs from multiple sensors to a central artificial intelligence that “observes” your habits and behaviors and tailors your car’s performance to them. AIDA can learn your favorite routes and stops, remember and remind you of important events, and over time anticipate other desires; it might know, for instance, which day you like to go to the grocery store because that’s when the wild Alaskan salmon arrives.
In other words, improvements in artificial intelligence will turn the car into a personal assistant. In time, we could even leave the driving to the assistant, because the sensors and software being developed for such applications will add up, the technology will evolve, and a difference in degree will become a difference in kind. “The idea is to change the relationship between human and machine,” Lee says. By 2030, cars could be smart enough that we’ll summon them to pick us up at the airport.
Cars are not especially good at learning right now, but engineers are working on that too. Rob Passaro has worked at BMW’s Group Technology Office in Silicon Valley since it opened in 1998, when the auto industry’s idea of an IT revolution was a car that could play MP3s. When I met him in the “office’s” spotless garage, though, he quickly explained that his primary mission was to “open the car as a platform for applications.” Cars are the most thoroughly computerized machines most of us will ever buy, he said, but unlike phones or laptops, they are nearly impossible to upgrade—you pay your money and then drive the thing unchanged until it’s scrapped. But connect a car to the Internet, and the possibilities become more interesting.
Passaro plopped a white iPhone into a cradle in the center console of a 5 Series sedan to demonstrate BMW Apps, a system available on all BMWs produced after March 2011 that connects the car to a website from which the driver can download BMW-specific iPhone apps. For now, BMW offers only customized versions of already-popular apps from companies like Pandora and Facebook. The interesting thing about these apps is not that they exist, however, but where they exist. They show up on the dashboard display, not on the iPhone, and their installation involves customizing software that car companies have traditionally treated as an unalterable, untouchable secret. Car companies are skittish about the possibility, but eventually it’s probably inevitable that someone will invent apps that work their way much further into the car’s vital functions—all the way, perhaps, into the fuel-injection or lane-detection systems.
Cars won’t just talk to the Internet. They will also gather information from their immediate surroundings. After Passaro finished his demo, he handed me off to another engineer, Darren Liccardo, who walked me out of the garage and into a wide, mostly empty parking lot surrounded by giant hedges.
A prototype 5 Series awaited. Its trunk was packed with off-the-shelf computer hardware running a popular open-source operating system called ROS, for Robotics Operating System, which is used in everything from housecleaning robots to self-piloting helicopters. In this case, it would help the car handle a basic traffic problem—negotiating a stoplight. After a drive around the Technology Office, Liccardo pulled back into the parking lot, stopped the car, drew a keyboard out from under his seat, and typed a few commands. A video-camera image of a traffic signal mounted at the back end of the parking lot appeared on the console screen. “This is what we call smart cars meet smart traffic lights,” he said.
The traffic signal had been modified to communicate with our car over a wireless Internet connection. Liccardo pointed to the console screen The light was red, but the screen displayed a countdown clock ticking off the seconds until it would turn green. He stepped on the gas, steered the car toward the red traffic light, and, confident that his vehicle-to-infrastructure communication system would let him know exactly when the light would change, accelerated. The light turned green, and we blew through it without slowing down.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.