A Humble Suggestion As We Navigate the Road to Self-Driving Cars

[NOTE: This week I’m taking a break from writing about mindset to pontificate a little bit about technology. Besides, the only other mindset topic I can think about was how earlier this week some friends of ours who live a few blocks away were asked by an anonymous neighborhood college student, in the form of a multiple page handwritten letter left on their doorstep, to take down the Trump signs in their front windows. Said letter also included a mention of how their house is the ugliest one on the street. While I’m definitely not a Trump fan, I unequivocally endorse thoughts, behaviors and actions directed toward open-mindedness, non-judgmentalism and unequivocal freedom of speech. Got it? Get it? Good!]

Lost-In_Space_Chariot

The growing froth and excitement around self-driving cars is understandable. They promise reduced auto fatalities, far more flexibility, and the ability to hoist one’s legs onto the dashboard and smoke endo while commuting to work. But let’s start by taking things way down from the very beginnings of this new promised land, as is now showcased in Tesla’s ‘auto-pilot’ feature.

What can we do now to further propel the evolution of practical AND cool technology inside of more modestly priced cars that make them easier to operate, more fun, and safer to operate?

Well, let’s start with a question. Do you own a $180 Amazon Echo or have you spent some time with one a friend owns? Because once you do, that lovely and amorphous ‘Lady in the Cloud’ we call Alexa may cause you to re-think many of the technology devices that surround you. Yes, that includes your formerly beloved iPhone. Sorry Siri.

Despite its relatively crappy sound, the Amazon Echo is all about the music. With simple voice commands bellowed from across the room, I access not just Amazon Prime Music stations and playlists, but also Pandora and Spotify as well as a myriad of bona fide Internet radio stations and podcasts thanks to TuneIn radio integration. To test Alexa’s mettle, have I spoken as rapidly as I can to request 20 second bursts of completely random songs? Oh yes I have.

Beyond music, getting the weather forecast, a sports score, checking on the shipping status of your Amazon order, asking for a joke…so many possibilities.

And yet, early this morning I got into my brand new souped up $30,000 Toyota Prius feeling just a bit of melancholy. Sure, the Prius has Siri Hands-Free voice integration for making phone calls and firing up Apple music stations, artists and playlists. But I can’t voice-hail Pandora, Spotify, or TuneIn, et cetera. Yes, the Prius also comes with its own voice recognition capabilities for making phone calls and operating the navigation system, as do fancier Lexus automobiles. But it’s primitive and often doesn’t work properly or at all.

Therefore I wonder…if the Echo features home automation capabilities that can switch one’s Philips Hue lights on and off and turn the temperature setting lower on a NEST thermostat – thanks to APIs and integration between these different branded devices – why can’t automotive manufacturers start working with Amazon…like TODAY…to add much better voice recogntion and AI technology into their automobiles?

While I thank the Ford Motor company for announcing an early step to integrate its cars with Alexa’s ability to turn on the kitchen lights before arriving home at the end of a long day, what I’m talking about is voice-controlled automation within my C-MAX.

As you can probably tell by now, I’m just a suburban caveman and certainly not an engineer. But it seems to me the automobile is the perfect closed-loop system. Combine this with the ability to access the Internets via a hotspot device embedded within the OBD II port underneath the steering column and voila…we have ourselves some magic. Just what the hell am I talkin’ bout, Willis? Here goes…

A) I’d like to make the most minute seat adjustments and not have to mess with a bunch of buttons.

B) We’ve already covered car audio system possibilities. But what about volume control? And yes, I’d love to be able to scream, “Turn up the bass,” while stopped at a traffic light as well. While we’re at it, most sound systems need more treble.

C) Here’s an admittedly first world scenario. I’m all ready for that exciting day trip with the family. But first let me spend five frustrating minutes in my driveway dickering with the new nav system and its arcane interface.  Yes, I know I can use my Google Maps on my smartphone but I just bought a new car…DUDE!

D) What about controlling the ventilation system – warmer, cooler, higher or lower fan speeds, front and rear defrosters?

E) Slower or faster windshield wiper settings and a quick spritz to clean off bird poo, anyone?

F) How about setting the cruise control for the precise speed I want, rather than the typically awkward gas pedal-striving for that perfect MPH and then rapidly flinging the lever rapidly downward?

G) Sure, newer cars have headlights that turn on automatically but what about the ability to voice-control them manually, or simply to turn on whatever the hell those things are called – parking lights?

Here is where I’m going with this. When I drive, I don’t want to be distracted at all. Yet distracted driving isn’t just about burying one’s face in her/his smartphone. Therefore I submit that Alexa-powered smarter cars with bona fide voice recognition and AI technology will contribute to more intentional driving.

Goddammit! You see, the thing that sucks about the Amazon Echo is that it makes one realize how limited so many of our other shiny new object tech devices are. But stated more opportunistically and optimistically and to reiterate the classic cliché, Alexa changes everything.

Better yet, given that Google and Apple are now poising to introduce Amazon Echo challengers, this doesn’t have to exclusively be a Jeff Bezos party.

Yes, I know this may be difficult to achieve. But at the end of the day, all I’m initially talking about is thinking more expansively and combining seemingly disconnected technology universes that yield more practical, interactive, enjoyable and safe experiences.

Oops. I guess this was an article about mindset after all.

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