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  • Writer's pictureSky Basu

The Computer that Takes you to Point A to Point B to Point C…

Updated: Mar 18, 2019

For the past few months I have been commuting every day from north of Santa Clara county in San Francisco Bay Area to the southern tip. Almost 90% of my primary route is through Highway 101, one of the most congested roads during commute time in the Bay Area. During these long commutes, which often go beyond 1 hour each way, I had the opportunity to experience some amazing technology to reduce my commute time as well as make it more bearable. I also had ample opportunity to think about ways to make the commute experience even better and more enriching. This post discusses some of the commute related state of the art technologies and also suggests ways to improve them further.

Navigation as the killer App for mobile

Nowadays I don’t move my car without setting my Google map on my Android phone to navigation mode if I am driving beyond my neighbourhood even during the weekends and non-commute times. Just like other drivers, I don’t like to sit in a slow moving traffic and would like to find alternative faster route even if it is longer. For quite some time now, Google Map incorporates the current traffic conditions of all major streets and many obscure surface roads and calculates the fastest route. In my experience, their estimates are quite accurate, often within couple of minutes of ETA. I have also used Waze which does the same but often with a different route. Google now owns Waze, and Google Map uses some of the Waze technologies. However, personally I prefer Google map to Waze due to its overall integration with the rest of the Google and android ecosystem. In my experience I regularly save 5 to 10 minutes from my commute by taking the recommended surface roads (sometimes through not the greatest neighbourhood) rather than my primary route.

One feature I am yet to see in Google or Waze Navigation is the ability to specify that I am taking carpool lane and then getting a route recommendation based on the traffic condition of the carpool lanes. This feature will become more important as more and more people get electric vehicles and get permit (e.g. the California white tag) to use carpool lanes even when driving solo. I guess based on the current GPS resolution of 25 feet, it is not easy to physically identify cars traveling on carpool lanes. However, for roads where the difference in the average speed of cars in the carpool and regular lanes is high, by cluster analysis it might be possible to differentiate these two groups of traffic flows and plan the routes accordingly.

How does phone based navigation compare with the built-in navigation systems of cars? After using a few of the built-in navigation systems even in high end cars, I find them to be significantly inferior to the phone based navigation systems. The primary differentiating factors include user experience, relevance (i.e. updated to the most recent maps), integration with many other productivity software like contacts, calendars, email, updated POI (point of interest) database, live traffic condition information and most importantly TCO (Total cost of ownership). This squarely takes us to the subject of the new set of applications – Android Auto and Apple Carplay.

Car as an extension of the phone

With some small differences, both Android Auto and Apple Carplay use the built-in big screen of the cars to render some selected apps running on the phone. Moreover, some of the car dashboard hardware can be used to control the apps. Many car manufacturers are supporting both Android Auto and Apple Carplay in their new models. Using compatible aftermarket devices (radio/navigation) some of these capabilities can be added to the existing models as well. Microsoft also has Windows OS available to some of the car manufacturers. I am yet to use any of these applications in action so whatever I discuss here is based on publicly available information.

The apps that come with these Google and Apple Auto-Apps are quite obvious – Map, Phone, Message, Contacts, Music all with new driving friendly UX and voice enabled. Knowing the power of these ubiquitous Android and Apple platforms, I do expect to see independent software developers coming up with innovative apps in no time. Here are some of the features I’d like to see from the car manufacturers, Google/ Apple as well as independent ISVs.

A common API standard for all Car as a platform (CaaP, I am trademarking this if this is not done yet)

There is a W3C standard for the same called Vehicle Information Access API that covers some basic vehicle functionality. There is also Open Automotive Alliance committed to Android platform. When car manufacturers adopt these standards, we can use Auto Apps to invoke voice commands like “set the temperature to seventy-four degrees”, “roll down all the windows”, “lock the doors”. The current set can be extended to more model specific functionality like ‘traction control’, ‘automatic parking’, or even ‘self-driving mode’. What is really exciting is that once the car manufacturers open up their internal systems through standardized API, the juice of innovation will start flowing. CaaP will give an immediate killer use case for IoT, with a truly “huge” audience.

A personal assistant smarter than Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google

Let me call him Herbie (from the 1968 Walt Disney motion pictures – Love Bug). Sorry, I know it is customary to make a virtual assistant woman, but I could not find a better character than Herbie for this role. Now Herbie has access to a lot of information – about your life almost on a minute by minute basis (scary isn’t it!). He has access to your contacts, calendars, music, emails, and phone records – which all existing virtual assistants also have. But Herbie also knows something more about your car! Examples include remaining gas in the tank, mileage, typical range, range right now based on remaining gas, tire pressure, oil pressure, various fluid levels and quality, state of the brake liners, results of various auto diagnostics, state of various components like doors, windows, wipers, lights, sun/ moon roof, climate controller, inside and outside temperature and humidity. The way Herbie can interact and help us is only limited by imagination. Here is a verbal exchange between me and Herbie in the future:

I opened my car’s door with keyless entry after my day’s work at the office.

Herbie: Hi Sky, how was your day?

Me: Good. Thanks.

Herbie: Are we heading home?

Me: Yes.

Herbie: Please note that your wife has sent you a grocery list to pick on the way home.

Me: Yes, I got that.

Herbie: Also we need to get gas on the way.

Me: Didn’t we get gas just two days back?

Herbie: Yes, but you have a meeting tomorrow morning in the city at 9am and there is not enough gas to make a round trip to the city. Don’t forget to put some air in your front tires as you have a long drive to LA on Friday.

Me: Ok.

Herbie: I have set the navigation first to your regular grocery store, then the gas station and then home.

Me: Sounds good.

By the way, this whole conversation need not occur in the car and could take place anywhere with Herbie running on my smartphone.

Though the above discussion is future looking, all the technology required for making this possible are available today at various performance levels.

In the last 10 years when the computer system was miniaturized to pocket size, was augmented with a high definition graphic display, microphone, speakers, radio transmitter, camera, various sensors like accelerometer, gyroscope, light sensor – we got a smartphone and a quiet revolution happened. When the computer acquires a set of wheels, an engine (or electric motor), a transmission, a car body to seat passengers, a mechanical and electrical system for locomotion it becomes a smart car ready for another quiet and fast revolution.

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