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Why Smart Cars Are Stupid

By 1871 CEO Howard A. Tullman. To view the original post, visit

Cleaner and dramatically more fuel-efficient cars make a lot of sense to me. Electric vehicles, once we master the concerns around economic battery life and thereby effectively eliminate range anxiety, are going to be omnipresent in the central business districts of our cities within a few years. Charging kiosks will be on every corner and in every garage and the vehicles we'll drive from place to place won't necessarily even be our own as shared fleets of every form of transportation--bikes being just the beginning-- multiply.

OnStar and similar emergency notification services, which can rapidly and automatically summon and precisely direct roadside assistance to disabled vehicles, will clearly help save lives. Route guidance, parking apps and wayfinding systems have already become an essential part of our hyper-mobile lives and something that we increasingly can't live without. Apps that solve for and facilitate inexpensive inter-modal transportation solutions will be the newest forms of Frogger -- letting us leap quickly from bus to train to plane all seamlessly. (See "How RideScout Demonstrates the Power of the Platform.")

And nothing I've seen lately remotely compares to the joy of triggering your tailgate with a swipe of your toe when you're holding a ton of packages-- unless it's the ability to beep your horn and flash your headlights while you're wandering around a dark parking lot after a Cubs game trying to find your ride home.

But when it comes to in-dash video displays, heads-up windshield indicators, touch pads and screens, etc., the slope quickly gets quite slippery and I'm not such a big fan. The car guys shamelessly tell us not to text and drive-- out of one side of their mouths-- then endlessly tout new audio-enabled features that will read my emails and texts out loud, and let me dictate answers as well. And then they go on to pretend all the while that I'm not going to be terribly distracted in the process. I don't buy it. Just because we can do these things doesn't necessarily make them simple, safe or smart options.

The much bigger issue going forward is the fantasy of millions of self-driving cars hitting the roads in the next several decades. Never going to happen-- even though it's one of Detroit's newest and most persistent pipe dreams. The car manufacturers are hoping to save their bacon (or at least reach retirement age before the impending deluge) by shifting their current production activities to comparable numbers of new, technologically-advanced, "smart" cars even though there's no one under 30 who really wants to own a car at all. (See "Why Gen Y Doesn't Care About Cars.") And even though Uber already has more daily riders today than the public transportation systems in Boston and Chicago combined, and has jumped ahead of the cab companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas and Washington D.C. That's because it takes just short of forever to turn over any significant segment of the cars on the road in the United States.

There are about 250 million cars and trucks on the road these days and-- notwithstanding the fact that we currently buy about 17 million new cars a year while about 40 million used cars change hands annually-- the overall age of the cars on the highways today is increasing and now averages about 11.5 years. (The scrappage rate is 4% to 5% annually.) Some 14 million of those existing cars are more than 25 years old. Not a one of these cars is "smart" and every one of them will be capable of smacking right into your self-driving super car for the next 20 or 30 years. Of course, President Obama could make all the cars older than some cutoff age illegal to drive before he leaves office. But, if you think it's hard to get a gun owner to part with his piece, try taking a car away from a Californian if you want to see a really nasty battle.

So I wouldn't be holding my breath any time soon for the tsunami of smart car sales that the car guys and gals are praying for every night. Because, even apart from the fact that bending the steel in cars as opposed to creating the software controls and smarts will continue to be less and less valuable and more and more the ass-end of the industry, the truth is that we don't need smart cars-- we need smart roads to handle millions of relatively dumb cars.

The cars won't be as dumb as today, but millions will be easy to retrofit because the tasks they'll need to independently perform will still be mainly mechanical (starting, accelerating, slowing and stopping) and not too much more. These functions are already onboard (think cruise control) and can be easily updated and controlled by dongle-based, Wi-Fi-enabled units accessing the vehicle's OBD (onboard diagnostics) port which will receive directions and instructions from road-based markers, sensors and transmitters.

We live in a world where the best winning technologies are built on powerful platforms. (See "The Primacy of the Platform".) We need to start thinking of our roads and highways as precisely that: a transportation platform much like a railroad system that will efficiently, safely and securely control the movements of millions of vehicles without the necessity of equipping every single vehicle with hundreds of omni-directional, multi-function, expensive sensors, cameras and other devices. Smart roads are a lot smarter than millions of not-so-smart cars.

Yes, we will have to upgrade the miles and miles of roads, but we are already doing that throughout the country anyway. And, while this is a daunting task, it wasn't so many years ago when none of us would have believed that Waze and Google and Navteq would have mapped out almost every road in the world and put that data in our cars and on our phones for free.

We can start with the interstate highway system which you will be amazed to learn is less than 50,000 miles of roadways. All we need to do is to develop a comprehensive plan to do it, figure out how to pay for it, and get started. Not easy I'm sure, but a lot easier than replacing 250 million individual vehicles over several decades and chasing a constantly receding goal line.

Topics: Insights

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