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Intelligent cars may turn on you

talkingcarIn the future, cars will be designed to talk., not only to you, but to gossip among themselves. Having a chatty car may seem like fun, but beware: they could testify against you in court, writes Donald A. Norman.

Until recently, technology has been pretty much under control.

Even as technology gained more intelligence, it was still an intelligence that could be understood. After all, people devised it, and people exerted control: starting, stopping, aiming, and directing.

No longer. Automation has taken over many tasks, some thankless—consider the automated equipment that keeps our sewers running properly—and some not so thankless—think of the automated teller machines that put many bank clerks out of work. These automated activities raise major issues for society.

Important though this might be, however, my focus here is on those situations where the automation doesn’t quite take over, where people are left to pick up the pieces when the automation fails. This is where major stresses occur and where the major dangers, accidents, and deaths result. 

Consider the automobile, which, as the New York Times notes, “has become a computer on wheels.” What is all that computer power being used for? Everything. Controlling the heating and air conditioning with separate controls for the driver and each passenger.

Controlling the entertainment system, with a separate audio and video channel for each passenger, including high-definition display screens and surround sound. Communication systems for telephone, text messaging, e-mail. Navigation systems that tell you where you are, where you are going, what the traffic conditions are, where the closest

restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and entertainment spots are located, and paying for road tolls, drive-through restaurants, and downloaded movies and music. 

Much of the automation, of course, is used to control the car. Some things are completely automated, so the driver and passengers are completely unaware of them: the timing of critical events such as spark, valve opening and closing, fuel injection, engine cooling, power-assisted brakes and steering.

Some of the automation, including braking and stability systems, is partially controllable and noticeable. Some of the technology interacts with the driver: navigational systems, cruise control, lane-keeping systems, even automatic parking. And this barely scratches the surface of what exists today, and what is planned for the future. 

Pre-crash warning systems now use their forward-looking radar to predict when the automobile is apt to get into a crash, preparing themselves for the eventuality. Seats straighten up, seat belts tighten, and the brakes get ready.

Some cars have television cameras that monitor the driver, and if the driver does not appear to be looking straight ahead, they warn the driver with lights and buzzers. If the driver still fails to respond, they apply the brakes automatically. Someday, we might imagine the following interchange at a court trial: 

Prosecutor: “I now call the next witness. Mr. Automobile, is it your sworn testimony that just before the crash the defendant was not watching the road?”

Automobile: “Correct. He was looking to his right the whole time, even after I signaled and warned him of the danger.”

Prosecutor: “And what did the defendant try to do to you?”

Automobile: “He tried to erase my memory, but I have an encrypted, tamper-proof storage system.” 

Your car will soon chat with neighboring cars, exchanging all sorts of interesting information. Cars will communicate with one another through wireless networks, technically called “ad hoc” networks because they form as needed, letting them warn one another about what’s down the road.

Just as automobiles and trucks from the oncoming lane sometimes warn you of police vehicles by flashing their lights (or sending messages over their two-way radios and cell phones), future automobiles will tell oncoming autos about traffic and highway conditions, obstacles, collisions, bad weather, and all sorts of other things, some useful, some not, while simultaneously learning about what they can expect to encounter.

Cars may even exchange more than that, including information the inhabitants might consider personal and private. 

Gossiping cars. When two cars talk to one another, what do they talk about? Why, the weather, or traffic patterns, or how to negotiate the intersection they are both approaching at high speed. At least, that’s what the researchers are working on. But you can also bet that clever advertisers are thinking about the potential.

Each billboard can have its own wireless network, broadcasting its wares to the car. Imagine a billboard or store checking with the navigation system to see just what the car’s destination is, perhaps to suggest a restaurant, hotel, or shopping center.

What if it could take control of the navigation system, reprogramming it to instruct the driver to turn into the advertiser’s establishment? When the day comes that the steering is under the car’s control, the car might very well decide to take you to the restaurant of its choice, possibly even preordering your favorite food for you. “What,” the car might say to you,  “you mean you don’t want your favorite food every day, every meal? Strange—why is it your favorite, then?” 

What about an overload of advertisements or viruses inserted into the telephones, computers, and navigation system in the auto? Is this possible? Never underestimate the cleverness of advertisers, or mischief makers, or criminals. Once systems are networked together, it is amazing what unexpected events can transpire.

The technology experts say it is not a matter of if but of when. It is always a race, and no matter what the good guys do, the bad guys always figure out a way to wreak havoc. 

DesignThis is an extract from The Design of Future Things by Donald A. Norman. The book is published by Basic Books and is distributed in Australia through Scribo 

Donald A. Norman is the Breed Professor of Design at Northwestern University, a former Vice President at Apple Computer, and a partner in the Nielsen Norman Group Consulting Firm, which consults with corporations on design. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

Photo: Roary the racing car.



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