GM and Toyota on the Car of the Future

GM and Toyota on the Car of the Future

“The cell phone is not the distraction.  It’s the driving that’s the distraction.” – Byron Shaw

On Tuesday, July 12, Norma and I attended an IEEE-sponsored presentation:  “Future Vehicle Computer Systems in a Five Screen World.”  The speakers were Roger Melen (Senior Advisor, Toyota InfoTechnology Center USA) and Byron Shaw (Managing Director, General Motors Advanced Technology Office).  In an entertaining 90 minutes the speakers and the audience gave a lively overview of where cars are headed.  The discussion ranged far and wide, including some new jargon:

  •  “Young digital natives” who understand special apps quickly.  (See “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives” by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, 2008, Basic Books.)
  • “The impact of multitasking on brain development.”  Melen seems to believe that kids who grow up multitasking will get better at it.  He noted that currently about 2.5% of the population are excellent multitaskers.
  • Even more urbanization.  Byron Shaw noted that by 2030 60% of world population and 80% of wealth will be in cities.  This means cars with a 300 mile driving range may not be in as much demand as they are today.
  • In the U.S. product liability remains a significant barrier to innovation in the car business. Shaw’s example: in Brazil you can routinely buy cars with built-in USB ports.
  • Cars that drive themselves are here today.  Byron noted that an unnamed company in Mountain View occasionally puts its driverless car on I-280 (a bay area freeway that’s relatively less traveled).  (If you can’t guess the company, you need to get out less.)
  • Neither speaker believed we would be in a petroleum-free world in the near (or even distant) future.  Their example: airplanes.  Batteries just weigh too much to be practical when you need to lift several tons of stuff.
  • Safety is a big deal.  New features like vehicle stability control make the vehicle safer. Roger noted that this may lead the driver to take more chances.  There is some statistical evidence supporting this.  Data seems to show drivers of cars with ABS actually have more accidents than those without ABS.  The reasons for this remain unclear, but as a good economist, I have to believe that part of the reason is the incentives that ABS introduces.
  • The electronics must be durable.  Expect cars to last 20 years.  The compromise between building features into hardware and the relatively easy ability to upgrade software becomes even more profound when you consider that planning horizon.  Software is easy to upgrade, but relatively risky.  Hardware tends to be less risky just because software is thoroughly debugged before it’s burned into a chip.
  • The average American spends about one hour a day commuting.  People are increasingly looking at that time as potentially useful.  Since we can’t all afford chauffeurs, increasingly helpful cars are one answer.

Roger spoke first.  He introduced the five screens – television, desktop computer, notebook computer, portable device, and car computer.  His slides on portable devices included three operating systems: iOS, Android, and Blackberry.  Neither speaker mentioned Nokia or Windows Mobile.  Byron, however, mentioned a straightforward use of your smartphone or tablet: when you park your car in a shopping mall lot, note the location on a map (preferably lat-lon).

Design and infrastructure are big deals.  Byron mentioned that the Chevy Volt has 100 million lines of code.  A member of the audience noted that it costs about $50 per line of code to validate software for commercial aircraft.  Byron responded that rolling out a new car model was always expensive.  But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about $5 billion just for debugging the software.  Byron also proposed a possible solution to “range anxiety” issues in all-electric vehicles.  Suppose you could drive your EV to a nearby train station, drive onto the train, plug in your car, and exit the train near your destination.  Interesting model. Presumably something similar could be done with trucks.

At the end of the Q&A, an audience member asked when he would finally be able to buy a flying car.  Both speakers agreed this was simply not very likely.  As always, it’s very difficult to beat the laws of physics.  Fighting gravity is an expensive proposition.

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