The Connected Car

Overlord of Daily Life

February 20, 2016   by Douglas Black   Folks around my age often accessorized their first car immediately upon delivery of the keys. This typically happened between ones fifteenth and seventeenth birthday.  I am fifty-something now.

My first car came with a radio and a single speaker that crackled if you turned the volume past five or six.  There was no cranking the knob to eleven and it was certainly not “all about that bass”.  I was lucky because the car was practically new so it even had FM.  An older jalopy may have been sold sans radio altogether, with arm-strong steering and four on the floor.

I won’t divulge the make and model out of sheer embarrassment, but suffice it to say that it sported a peppy 4-cylinder with aluminum block that was certain to self-destruct within 40k and has been widely regarded as the worst car ever produced by the big three automakers.  Ever.   In my defense I was pressured into the purchase, purposely steered away from a sleek 1975 Monte Carlo that was painted a beautiful shade of Chevrolet Go-Fast Red.

So as was the custom, my first task was to purchase the aftermarket quadraphonic sound system, amplified to 100 watts, and yes it had an 8-track player.  Led Zeppelin records cannot be played in a moving vehicle.

Wanting to avoid the $20 installation fee I enlisted the help of good friends to drill, cut and hack the beast into its awkward place in the dashboard, saving room underneath in case I opted to add a CB radio or 007-Bondesque telephone.

How times have changed. Not only have automotive accessories evolved several degrees of magnitude beyond the 8-track tape player, the car itself is now an integral part of our daily computerized activities.  The car is connected.  It is our interface to the world while we are on the move.

Most automakers now promote the connectivity of the new models front and center.  You may see them at any of this season’s string of auto shows from Detroit to New York to Geneva.  I happened to survey the state-of-the-art at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show, largest in America.

Typically included in the dashboard displays are navigational applications, music from your personal catalog or satellite, and an interface with your phone.  Access to the internet seems universally restricted from sites which display video while the vehicle is moving, presumably for safety reasons.  Texting and driving is worse when watching Netflix at the same time.

I sat in the driver’s seat of the Chevrolet Connectivity display and was given the run-through by a young engineer who seemed eager to explain seemingly mundane concepts of the iPhone and Android ins-and-outs to a Luddite who still carries a flip-phone.  What made the most sense to me was the idea that the automotive engineers have yielded the design of future tasks, applications, and to-do lists, dutifully performed by your car, to the army of young code writers and software engineers now populating our high schools.  The “intelligence” of the connectivity comes from – and may continue to come from – the hand held devices we carry around in our back pockets, be they an Android operating system or iPhone from Apple.  Automakers in general provide the “vehicle” to integrate your smart phone into your vehicle.

Subaru demonstrated its Starlink connectivity system both hands-on and in a virtual reality experience in which I rode along with a virtual engineer curiously sitting in a right-hand steer vehicle.  When reaching out to activate the touchpad of the Subaru Starlink user interface on the virtual dashboard I could not see my own hand.  Looking down I had no torso either, making the whole experience somewhat unnerving.  The system (in real life) performed wonderfully and the user interface seems very familiar to both Android and iOS camps.

Volkswagen has a system called App-Connect which recognizes AndroidAuto from your smartphone, the AppleCarPlay app from you iPhone, and the MirrorLink.  If there is an app for it, your Beetle can do it for you (provided it does not involve watching the latest episode of Walking Dead while driving across town).  Security and safety are also offered in these integrated systems, following the success of GM’s OnStar System introduced a few years ago.


OverDryve by Rand McNally

Navigations and publishing giant Rand-McNally is jumping into the mobile technology arena with their OverDryve Smart Assistant, a dashboard tablet that turns any car into a connected car.  Not only will you be able to make hand-free calls and texts using the audio system in your car, you can then ask the Smart Assistant to call any of your contacts by name or read your incoming texts out loud and ask you if you want to reply. When you respond, the Smart Assistant reads your text back to you before sending.

The OverDryve also includes forward collision warning and back-up camera, as well as Rand McNally’s award winning navigation.  What makes this package somewhat unique is the access to key diagnostic information for your car.  With an additional plug-in app, you can check diagnostics such as vehicle fault codes, and fuel economy. Say goodbye to the mysterious check engine light.

With an additional tire pressure monitoring system, you’ll be able to quickly access the temperature and pressure of each individual tire on your car, so you know which tire to fill and when.  And did I mention the tachometer?  All of this is displayed on a tablet which can be easily removed from its magnetic mount to function as any tablet would.

This seems like a perfect match for my son’s robin’s egg blue 1974 Plymouth Duster.  The OverDryve is set to launch in June and Rand McNally is taking pre-orders now.

Who knows, perhaps someone will write an app to play virtual 8-track tapes again.  In any event, we are indeed one step closer to cyborg-ing with our cars, one giant leap away from AM Radio as “optional equipment”.



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