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When Will Cars Work More Like Phones? First You’ve Got to Get Mad!

Insomnia got to me tonight, so I wandered into the kitchen to eat cereal and read an excellent FastCompany article entitled “Fill ‘Er Up With Apps: Why Our Cars Need to Work More Like Our Phones” by Farhad Manjoo. While reading, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, having fallen asleep in 1999 when I was with IBM and working on in-vehicle apps and waking up 14 years later to learn the world of in-vehicle computing hasn’t changed that much, and that most of the problems Manjoo says need fixing still are not fixed. Huh?

Cars are still closed systems. The disparity in product life cycles is still an obstacle. There still exist the same worries about safety. There is still no cross-industry agreement on API standards. So much fiddling while Rome burns.

At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving [1]. In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, and over 387,000 people were injured [2]. You only have to watch the video about John Gordon’s death to know something is woefully wrong here. We are all at risk. Legal prohibition and scolding alone will not solve this problem. We inventors need to offer drivers a better choice. But how?

In the 1976 Academy award winning film “Network”, the deranged anchorman Howard Beale said, “We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say: ‘I’m a human being, god-dammit! My life has value! I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” This short video clip of Beale’s impassioned speech is worth watching. Even though he made it over 30 years ago, it sounds like Beale is talking about our current situation ~ a reminder that we all need to wake up and take action.

So when are we going to get mad about cars as closed systems? We are losing almost ten people a day to distracted driving ~ why wait one more day for the kind of radical transformation we’ve already experienced with our phones? By now I would have at least expected there to be agreement on a standard API for OEM devices and apps. What is the holdup? If opening cars up to innovation would improve our safety and driving experience, as Manjoo suggests, why not give their opening the same kind of national attention we do gun violence? I submit John Gordon’s parents wish we would, as would thousands of others who’ve lost loved ones to distracted drivers. They are mad as hell, and so should we be.

For three hundred years, beginning with its discovery by Portuguese sailing vessels in the 16th century, Japan was a closed system, or a so-called “locked state.” Then, on July 8, 1853, the U.S. Navy steamed four warships into the bay at Edo, requesting that Japan open itself to trade with the West. The unwelcome arrival of these infamous “black ships” marked the reopening of the country after centuries of self-imposed isolation. I view car manufacturers like 19th century Japan, stubbornly holding on to their ancient ways and cloistered systems. Some black ships are needed, and I have a proposal for who should captain them ~ mothers.

In 1979, Beckie Brown lost her 18 year old son Marcus from injuries suffered in a traffic crash involving a 19-year old drunk driver. Channeling her grief into action, Beckie established the first Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) chapter in Northern Florida. Since then, MADD has loudly and appropriately raised hell over drunk driving and saved an untold number of lives due to their influence on legislation, enforcement, and technology. They were, and still are, MADD as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing…” A rebellion is overdue. It’s long past time to break the impasse between revolutionary tech innovators and tyrannical car manufacturers. We need some black ships, and we need them now. What form will they take? Will mothers lead this time, or will it be us fathers? Should government give car manufacturers an ultimatum as they do with CAFE standards: “Agree on an API by 20XX or we’ll agree on one for you?” I’m not sure. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.

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One Response to “When Will Cars Work More Like Phones? First You’ve Got to Get Mad!”

  1. David Johnson says:

    Here’s one way to fix the problem: get rid of the drivers!

    Imagine subscribing to a driverless car-sharing group. You reserve a car on an app your phone and then the next nearby available car comes out to meet you wherever you are. You ride to work, maybe pick up a passenger on the way, and when you get there you get out of the car which whisks off to its next appointment.

    But to your point – it would be great to be able to have some integration points, making it simple to play my music through the controls in the car, putting all displays on the windshield so I have no reason to look down at my phone (or even the dashboard). As a software developer I realized a while back that one way to get people to do the right thing is by making the right thing the path of least resistance. If it’s easier to look at the windshield than their phones, people will stop looking down at their phones. Grr.

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