The growing role of in-car technology

There can be little argument that Toyota has suffered the worst possible start to 2010, being forced to recall a number of vehicles worldwide to rectify glitches which could impact driver safety. Its recall of the Prius hybrid vehicle is interesting from an ICT point of view for one significant reason: rather than requiring a mechanical remedy, the problem will be rectified by a "software upgrade in the anti-lock braking system".

In-car telematics is undoubtedly something of a hot-topic, and we have previously discussed at-length the benefits which can be offered (more here). Increasingly sensors and "brains" are being added to cars in order to improve efficiency and security. And one of the key areas in which IT can contribute is in improving vehicle safety, for example through car-to-car communications systems which can share vehicle position, speed and direction data with others nearby, to alert drivers when there is the potential for danger.

Tying this back to the Toyota issue, there is clear potential here for problems: if drivers and vehicles become more and more dependent on in-car computer systems, then there is an increased potential for these systems to cause serious issues in the case of software glitches. In order for systems to function properly, then the integrity of the data generated becomes paramount, as rogue results will reduce the effectiveness of systems and potentially place drivers in danger. This also opens the way to the potential lawsuits if drivers act on incorrect information received from an in-car system.

To put all of this in context, a vehicle travelling at 30 miles per hour is covering 13 metres (or 44 feet) per second, meaning that if a driver makes a decision based on information that is even slightly incorrect, there is the real potential for an accident.

Analyst firm Frost & Sullivan noted that following the Toyota issue (and other similar cases): "as vehicle manufacturers waken to the dangers of increasing electronics content, the development and deployment of key automotive technologies like Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and the future of legislations mandating electronic technologies aimed at improving overall safety, is at play". Krishnasami Rajagopalan, Global Program Manager in the company's Chassis, Safety & Driver Assistance Systems Group, added: "until this problem is sorted out amicably and trust restored, consumers are likely to sit apprehensively in their cars surrounded by electronics they no longer trust".

A 2008 survey found that some 300,000 car accidents had been caused by drivers following the instructions of in-car GPS systems, often without making any judgement on the value of the information they are being offered -- in other words, blindly outsourcing the decision-making process to a $200 in-car terminal. Perhaps the best advice for drivers is to treat in-car navigation and safety systems as "information", rather than "gospel". As for software which controls important vehicle functions, such as the anti-lock breaking and engine management systems, customers will (rightly) expect performance levels well above that of home or office computer systems -- after all, a unlike a car crash, a PC crash does not entail physical injury.

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.