Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we're at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Guest Host: Paul Brown
Technology built into the dashboard of the car is changing the way we drive. It helps us navigate, change lanes and park. It sends email and makes phone calls for us. It can even read the newspaper to us while we’re stuck in traffic. But is it making us safer, or more distracted? Tech Tuesday explores the new “connected car” and the features drivers want most.
- Beau Whiteman Manger of the Tesla store on K Street in Washington, D.C.
- Damon Lavrinc Transportation Editor, Wired
- Justin Berkowitz East Coast Bureau Chief, Car and Driver
Feature-by-feature demo of the QNX CAR 2 application platform.
A look at the NVIDIA Tegra3-powered Tesla Model S auto infotainment system (based on quadcore ARM Cortex-A9 technology) at the Consumer Electronics Show 2013 in Las Vegas.
The MyLink software from Chevy is more user friendly than before.
MR. PAUL BROWNFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Paul Brown sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, think back to the last time you bought a car. What technology feature was most important to you: side air bags, seat warmers?
MR. PAUL BROWNNow think about what you'll look for in your next car: a touch-screen dashboard control panel, maybe, Wi-Fi, a car that will parallel park itself? Technology is revolutionizing the way we drive and the experience we have when we climb behind the wheel. In a world where everyone's connected to the Internet and their cellphones 24/7, automakers are trying to keep up. They're putting sophisticated computer systems into dashboards so that you can talk, listen and search while you drive.
MR. PAUL BROWNSome people say the new technology makes driving safer and more efficient. Others say it contributes to an epidemic of distracted driving. Tech Tuesday explores the new features that are making even ordinary cars like offices on wheels. I'm Paul Brown sitting in today for Kojo, and we have some very interesting guests on the show today. Beau Whiteman is with me here in the studio. Beau, welcome.
MR. BEAU WHITEMANHello.
BROWNAnd Beau is the manger of the Tesla store in Washington, D.C. right downtown. Justin Berkowitz is our East Coast bureau chief for Car and Driver magazine, joining us from New York City. Justin, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MR. JUSTIN BERKOWITZGood afternoon.
BROWNAnd Damon Lavrinc is transportation editor at Wired magazine. Damon is joining us from a studio in San Francisco. Damon, thanks for being with us as well.
MR. DAMON LAVRINCGood afternoon to you.
BROWNAnd, Damon, let me start with you right away. This year's Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas featured a lot of automakers showing off the in-car technologies that they're developing. In fact, one of our reporters at NPR News, Steve Henn, told me that there seemed to be as much automotive technology at the CES this year as there was anything else.
BROWNSo can you help us see the big picture here? How long will it be until we are riding in cars that basically feel like home offices with computer screens, phone systems, video conferencing, maybe cars that are pretty much getting themselves where you plan to go and you don't have to do much at all but ride along?
LAVRINCWell, we're getting close. You know, the CES example you brought up is actually a very kind of cogent example. CES has been traditionally a consumer electronics show. And the automakers are starting to realize that the car is kind of the ultimate mobile device. You know, consumers don't want their connected lives to stop when they get behind the wheel.
LAVRINCAnd because of that, they're trying to cram as many different kind of connectivity options in the car. Whether that's hands-free calling, integrated Google search, navigation, point-of-interest search, all these different things are kind of getting condensed in the vehicle. And there's a lot of different ways automakers are doing it.
LAVRINCSome of the German automakers, the luxury automakers are taking a more built-in approach. More domestic automakers are going with more of a brought-in approach where they rely more on your smartphone and that data connection to provide the information you need. So we're already at the point now where our cars are very connected.
LAVRINCYou know, the autonomous driving situation and all that is a topic maybe for another day. But, like I said, the connected side of vehicles is something that's already here today, and it's available on everything from your, you know, $15,000 Chevrolet Spark all the way up to your $150,000 range topping Mercedes.
BROWNMm hmm. Big, big changes as I look back, and we can get into some of that in a bit. But if you're listening now, think about it for a second. What technology feature was most important to you when you bought your last car, and what would be the most important thing you'd look for in a new one if you could? You know, what's on your must-have list? You can join our conversation, and we certainly hope you will.
BROWNHere's the number to call, 1-800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or get in touch with us through our Facebook page -- lots of options. We hope to hear from you. And, Justin, let's listen to your take on what's going on with Tesla. Tesla, as many listeners may know -- but some may not -- is an all-electric car basically.
BROWNAnd I have to say that, as something of a gear-head and an admirer of automotive design, the Tesla is really a beautiful car. It kind of nails me. It really caught my attention when I first saw it in magazines. And the other day, one drove across an intersection when I was out walking, and I thought, you know, I really, really -- that's a sexy car.
BROWNI'd like to own one of those. But tell us about some of the things that -- the features of the Tesla that we might not know about. I understand, for example, it has LED headlights. There may be some other things about the car that would be immediately visible if you knew about them. What has Tesla done beyond electric power for the motivational power of the car? But what about the other things?
BERKOWITZWell, and I'm sure we'll hear from my esteemed panelist also about his products, but I think what's telling about the Tesla and what's particularly interesting is that, yes, it's very good looking. So it's not just an electric car. And we know that that's necessary but probably not a sufficient condition to really sell a lot of these.
BERKOWITZAnd, so far, they're selling fairly well. It's -- the company is still ramping up what it can do. But on the tech front, a lot of effort has been made to reduce power consumption for everything other than spinning the wheels of the car. You want the range to be as good as possible, so you don't want to use electricity where it's not absolutely necessary and...
BROWNNow, when you drive this car as a tester -- and let me ask, Justin, have you tried the Tesla yet?
BERKOWITZI have, yeah.
BROWNAnd what do you think of it?
BERKOWITZIt's an excellent car, and it delivers on in my experience on what Tesla has promised. I did not drive it for the full range. It's not something I can evaluate, and we know that there's been quite a bit of discussion about this in the news. But it is an electric car. It goes and starts and stops. It's very quick. It's very nice-looking. And it feels like you're driving something very high tech. And, in fact, you are.
BROWNWell, let's move over here to Beau for a moment, Beau Whiteman of Tesla, the Tesla store in downtown D.C. Beau, when you look at this car that you are selling, what do you see? We've heard from Justin, an automotive reviewer, and he's speaking pretty highly of it basically. How do you market the Tesla? How do you sell it? What do you see when you walk into work?
WHITEMANYou know, every day is different than the last. Every one of our customers is looking for something different. As we've moved from marketing and selling the Roadster and now into marketing and selling Model S, there's an...
BROWNAnd the Model S, we should say, is a four-door sedan.
WHITEMANYes, versus a two-seat Roadster coupe. There's a marked difference in the customers themselves. And what's unique about Model S, it kind of hits people from two different streams. You have folks who have only driven premium sedans their, you know, entire adult life, whether it's a BMW, an Audi, a Mercedes, you name it.
WHITEMANAnd they'd love to have something more efficient, but they're unwilling to sacrifice any of the premium feel. And at the same time, you have customers who've been driving something very efficient, some hybrid, maybe another plug-in of some sort, and they'd love something more luxurious.
WHITEMANBut they're unwilling to give up the efficiency. And so what's really unique about Model S is at least from that standpoint, it's meeting two different types of customers at the same place. And so the way that we see our role in our company every day is that we just want to facilitate conversations. The new stores that we're popping up all across the country are aimed not so much at selling the cars as much as they are aimed at educating and informing the public of who we are and what our products do.
BROWNAlthough I'm sure you don't mind selling an occasional car.
WHITEMANIt doesn't hurt.
BROWNHelps to keep you in business, right?
BROWNThat's a very interesting pitch from a car salesman.
BROWNWe're not interested in selling the car. We'll see. I know that the cars are a little bit out of reach for a lot of people right now. What's the plan on that? I understand, you know, in most businesses, volume helps bring the price down when you start get a new technology going. So somewhere back there, there's got to be a desire to sell cars, make the technology more affordable and bring it to people at a more reachable price.
WHITEMANAbsolutely. And that's why one of the unique things about our business model is that it's really not unique. What we've done is we've taken a Silicon Valley approach to a particular product. This time, it is a car. Our first Roadster was 109-plus thousand dollars. A Model S starts now at fifty-nine nine, so roughly half the price.
BROWNFor a larger car with two more doors and really quite a few more features, probably.
WHITEMANFor -- we -- significantly more features. We call it twice the car at half the price.
BERKOWITZDo you have any of the $59,000 cars in the dealership yet? My impression was that the earliest cars built were the very high-end models which were over $100,000.
BROWNIs that Justin there?
BERKOWITZYes, it is.
WHITEMANYes. Correct. What a lot of folks don't realize is that each battery needs to go through the -- what they call the process with the EPA individually. And so we took the product that we had highest demand for which was and is the 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack. We've recently announced that more than half of our orders are for that specific battery.
BROWNAnd that's the higher-power battery.
WHITEMANCorrect. That model starts at seventy-nine nine. The 60-kilowatt-hour battery, that can go back 208 miles based on the EPA five-cycle rating. That one just went into production in January. And the 40-kilowatt-hour pack, which we're still awaiting EPA certification on, is poised to go into production here in the next month or so.
BROWNAnd that's the lowest priced of the three.
WHITEMANCorrect. And that one will start at fifty-nine nine. And so, long term, the company's business model is take all this revenue, turn it into more affordable, more available products. Something that our vice president of sales says all the time is that we've designed to be aspirational. So young folks like myself and my peers look at these cars, and we see these cars. We have a hunger and a thirst for them that lasts, you know, into our future so that when the day comes that we can afford this...
BROWNYou'll be able to. You'll be able to go out and buy one.
BROWNWe'd love to have you join our conversation, 800-433-8850, on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." And let's go to Nicolas in Mount Rainier, Md. Nicolas, you're on the air.
NICOLASHey. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. So I just have a quick comment about these systems that go into vehicles.
BROWNNow, are you talking about the interior systems like the touch screens, the navigation?
NICOLASYes. I am. Yes, totally. Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely. So my mother-in-law -- let me just give you a quick story. My mother-in-law owns, like, a really nice car, a Lincoln MKX, I believe, so that's, like, the Lincoln's SUV. And it is but for the grace of God that I haven't been in three car accidents because I've been trying to figure out how to either turn the radio down or just turn, like, actually change the station or scan or seek or sync up an iPhone.
NICOLASI mean, these systems are so unintuitive that it -- I can't even imagine someone who isn't very tech savvy figuring them out or really using them to all of their capabilities.
BROWNThis is a really important question, and it's interesting that we've gotten to it so quickly in the hour. I will have to say that -- I'm going to age myself a little bit here -- I come from the era when you really could reach out to the dashboard and operate every control in the car by feel. And I still have one car at least that is mostly operable by feel. The heating, the fan, I can do all those things. I can play the radio without ever looking away from the road.
BROWNIt seems to me that that's just about impossible now. My wife bought a Prius, and even though that's pretty well-engineered, same problems. So, Justin Berkowitz, what do you think? You see a lot of different cars come through. Is this a major problem, working all of these electronic controls into the interiors of cars? And what do you see in terms of progress on...
BROWN...making them more intuitive and more usable for drivers who are in motion, driving, you know, a one to two ton piece of machinery, which is a dangerous thing?
BERKOWITZYeah. Well, your caller is swinging at rather low-hanging fruit. That system from Lincoln, which is owned by Ford -- and Ford markets it under the SYNC name -- has been probably the most criticized by both the media and the public and organizations like J.D. Power which measure customer satisfaction for being unintuitive, unresponsive and overly complicated. Are the systems getting better and more intuitive and easier, including that one? Yes, they are.
BERKOWITZBut in the meantime, I think automakers are trying to find out how to deliver an amount of technology that people are interested in. And we know that, especially for young people, they care much less about engine performance for a car, for example, than an earlier generation would, but very much more about the technology in the car.
BERKOWITZSo the automakers are trying to balance delivering that technology, getting somebody interested in a vehicle when they would really otherwise just have a Zipcar but also to do it in a way that's safe and approachable. And, so far, some automakers have done better than others. It's not really practical or useful to kind of go through where each one shakes out.
BERKOWITZBut we're still not there yet. And there are a lot of systems that are just rather annoying and quite a lot of reactions just like we heard from the caller.
BROWNNow, Damon Lavrinc, transportation editor at Wired magazine here with us, what technologies are -- and, Nicolas, by the way, thank you very much for your call. Damon, what are the directions that some of the companies are going in? I understand that one idea is to have better voice-recognition in some of these systems so that you can do a lot of the things that once would have required a hand on a control by speaking to your car. Is that something that is in the foreseeable future?
LAVRINCYeah. Absolutely. I mean we've had voice-controlling cars for the better part of a decade now. However, the voice technology wasn't particularly good. It's getting exponentially better every year.
LAVRINCGetting back to the caller's point really quickly, you know, Ford system, since the onset, since they introduced the SYNC system and later the MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch system, they have been very, very specific about having the driver rely on voice as much as possible. And overall, the voice system in many Ford products is actually pretty good. And again, like I said, it's getting better across the board.
LAVRINCYou know, as far as the interface is concerned with voice, the biggest issue right now is we don't have a natural language command system. We're still parsing data out in most cases. Say, if you want to enter in a street address, you have to say the city, then the street number, or the street name and then the house number versus a natural language where you just say, I need to go to, you know, 123 Main St., San Francisco, Calif.
LAVRINCSo the automakers are getting much better at including this technology, implementing it. And in a lot of cases, one of the biggest hurdles is data. Before, we used to have all this computing power on-board in the car, and now these automakers are starting to off-board this voice-recognition systems to systems in the cloud, whether that be through Google or through Nuance, which is a voice-recognition company. And most automakers point to the fact that they feel less and less inclined to really push forward on the physical controls and focus more on voice controls.
BROWNIf you're listening now, I'd love to know if you think it's safe for drivers to use a big touchscreen display or if you would prefer voice control as we've been discussing here or what you think should be the next innovation to bring you the features that you want on a car in a way that is also safe to operate. We'll be back. We're going to take a just brief break here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown sitting in for Kojo. This is WAMU 88.5.
BROWNWe're back with "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," talking about automotive electronics and innovation. What do you want in your next car? What are the controls and the special electric gizmos that you like the most? Do you think it's safe to be using the touch screens that are proliferating in automobiles? If not that, what would you like? What do you think the next big innovation inside the car will be?
BROWNYou can call us, and the number, 1-800-433-8850, or you can email us at email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Paul Brown from NPR News sitting in today for Kojo. Let's go to -- we're just thinking of going through the phones, but that telephone call disappeared. However, Beau Whiteman of Tesla is with us, also Justin Berkowitz at the East Coast bureau of Car and Driver, and Damon Lavrinc, the transportation editor at Wired magazine.
BROWNBeau, there's been a little bit of concern about Tesla's range, especially in the cold weather. You know, this is an all-electric car. What is the company doing in terms of responding to the criticisms and the concerns that have been out there? And where are the technological developments? How do you support the whole situation?
WHITEMANMm hmm. Well, the official company response can be found in our blog. I think the conversation has been had so many times, and what was really amazing to watch in the aftermath, if you will, was the immediate presence of our customer base. That following weekend, we had seven of our owners collectively meet up just outside of the city at our service center in Rockville, Md. and decided to make that trip themselves. What was really fun to watch that day was one of the owners got to the supercharger station in the first one in Newark, Del. Only two ran into some charging trouble.
WHITEMANWe had live tech support back in California, writing them code in the moment and pushing it to the cars. One of the really unique innovations of Model S is that it's, as I know, at least one of the first vehicles to carry a 3G connection on board. And so we can push software updates. We can communicate with our cars no matter where they are as long as we have the customer's permission to do so. And having that type of tech support is really revolutionary and very forward-looking.
BROWNRight. Well now, you know, going back 100 years, let's face it, when gasoline power cars were first coming in, you couldn't find a fuel station without a great long look. And people would often carry extra large cans of fuel with them if they had to go out into the countryside or make an inter-city trip of some sort in the early 1900s. It's just -- it was a major undertaking.
BROWNDo the folks at Tesla see this, the current place that you're in, as part of the process of launching a new technology that you view will be successful? Or do you think that people who drive electric cars for the foreseeable future will have to make some pretty big adjustments in the way they think about transportation, the rhythms of their lives as it intersects -- as they intersect with transportation?
WHITEMANI mean, we certainly hope not. As we've said from day one, Model S was designed to be a vehicle that had zero compromises. You wouldn't have to give up anything by going electric.
BROWNCome in closer to your mic.
WHITEMANOh, I'm sorry.
BROWNWe want to hear you, Beau. There, that's a beautiful voice. We like that.
WHITEMANThere we go. And so in the here and now, it is definitely true that finding a charging station takes a little bit of effort. There are quite a few smartphone apps that can help you do so.
WHITEMANActually, it was Nissan, just a few weeks ago, put out a really, in my opinion, very cool and insightful Web video. They found this gentleman. His name escapes me right now, but he's much, much older. And it gave his take on, you know, 90 years ago, finding a gas station. It wasn't really available, but we recognize that the future isn't -- the future of electric drive isn't going to happen without more access to charging. And what we always say to our customers albeit sometimes a bit jokingly is that there are way more places to plug in an electric car than you'll find gas stations.
WHITEMANThere are 110-volt outlets at two dozen places in every home in America. Granted, that 110 is going to very slow. The fact is electricity is out there. So the way we see it, it's going to take some time. It's not going to happen overnight. But fortunately, we have a customer base that understands that and can see the value in coming on board to an early technology.
BROWNSo what you're saying is, in a sense, you need more pioneers as well. It's...
BROWNYou want the pioneers.
BROWNLet's go to the phones for a second and talk with John in Washington, D.C. John, you're on the air. And I understand you've got a question about technologies that are and are not available.
JOHNYes. I was wondering if we could have Wi-Fi in a car 'cause now we it in trains and planes. When will it be possible to find it in a car?
BROWNDamon Lavrinc or Justin Berkowitz, either one, would you like to answer that one?
BERKOWITZWell, there's very good news for you, sir.
BERKOWITZThey exist now.
BERKOWITZCertain brands of vehicles offer this now. It's usually an extra fee in terms of a monthly price, just the way it is on your cellphone or for Internet at home. But it does exist. Mini offers it. Chrysler offers it, a number of vehicles. Audi offers it. And there are, of course, some that I'm leaving out. But it's just a question of money and having the right brand that makes the technology available.
BROWNDamon, do you have anything to add there?
LAVRINCYeah. No. It's -- actually Justin pretty much hit all the points. Although interestingly, the Wi-Fi architecture is actually going to be used as a way for cars to start communicating with each other in the next five to 10 years. There's two pilot studies going on right now, one in Detroit, one in Germany, where they're using high-frequency Wi-Fi networks to allow vehicles to talk to each other and also talk to infrastructure like traffic lights and that kind of thing. So it's...
BROWNSo if the vehicles spoke to each other, what would they say?
LAVRINCWell, specifically, this car is about to run a red light or this vehicle is about to turn into a pedestrian lane, these kinds of things. So the safety benefits are huge. So we're not just talking about being able to, you know, watch your iPad streaming, you know, Netflix in the back seat. This actually could be a safety technology.
BROWNNo. But it sounds like that could be a real safety advance. Yeah.
BROWNA real advance, a measurable advance, if that could be made to work. Maybe a little later in the hour, we'll talk a little bit about self-driving cars. But right now, let's get Craig on the line here from Takoma Park. Craig, you're on the air.
CRAIGHey, guys. I'm going to channel my inner Clarkson from "Top Gear" and just say all the radio faces in all your cars are absolute rubbish, and they're all terrible. What I want to know is why don't you guys just use, like, Androids or iOS, just put, like, a tablet as the radio face? You got all your navigations. You got all your tools right there, and it's something that's upgradeable. I'm not stuck -- you know, if I keep my car for five to 10 years, I'm not stuck with the equivalent of an Atari 2600 in my dashboard.
BROWNWho wants to go for that one? Justin, do you have something?
BERKOWITZI'll take that one, if you don't mind.
BROWNOr, Damon, you've got it? OK. Let's hear it.
LAVRINCYeah, absolutely. Well, a couple things to point out. First of all, understand that the life cycle of vehicles -- that is the time it takes from them to be designed to production is, on average, about five to six years. It's getting a little bit better, four years now. But just to kind of put that in perspective, the vehicles that are going on the road today are vehicles that were introduced just when the iPhone -- the original iPhone came out.
LAVRINCBecause of that and because of these long development cycles, automakers have a really, really hard time kind of keeping pace with the consumer electronics world. It's -- there are two totally different time frames whereas, you know, Apple can release a new iPhone every year, automakers generally don't update their products until every three or four years.
LAVRINCTo your point though, specifically, about Android or iOS being used in the car, it's something that automakers are looking at. And the biggest issue, though, more than anything else -- and we'll put Apple aside just because they're not too interested from what we understand in making a major play in the car beyond kind of the periphery technology they're doing right now. But Android is a prime example. Could it be implemented? Absolutely.
LAVRINCThe security issues, though, are one of the bigger problems. They have to make sure that these technologies are what's "considered automotive grade," where they won't interfere with my signals, they can't be packed, as an example. One of the solutions, though, which we're going to start seeing relatively soon is a situation where you can just plug your smartphone into the car and the display of the smartphone would be augmented a little bit on kind of a dumb screen in the car.
LAVRINCAnd what that'll do is that'll give you access to your driving apps, specifically navigation and hands-free telephone calls and that kind of thing. And that kind of technology is being batted around a lot right now, and a lot of automakers, particularly on their more kind of less expensive models are looking to, you know, rely on the user smartphone for more things than the integrated head unit.
BROWNSo basically the car integrates with a software or an operating system that's already out there in people's hands. Craig, does that begin to answer your question?
CRAIGYeah. It does. I mean, I could see a lot of, you know, I'm an automotive enthusiast. Like, I can see a lot of racing applications. And I just envision a world where you take your tablet and you just plug it in as your radio face or you plug in your phone, you get all your Spotify music, you get all your driving apps, and you don't have to learn this whole new system that -- like these guys said, you know, as an excuse but, you know, this stuff developed four years ago. I want to use something that I use now. I don't want to have to go back in time half a decade when I get in my car.
BROWNI wonder if it's possible, and any one of the three of you, Beau, Justin or Damon, maybe we could ask Justin because you observed the industry a lot and maybe Beau can tell us a little from the standpoint of Tesla, is it possible to engineer the bulk of a car and leave the driver interface navigation-type systems close to the end so that it's as current as possible? Justin.
BERKOWITZYeah. And to be fair, this is largely what our automakers do today. They have to look at some of the infrastructure, how much power is it going to need, how much cooling is the system going to need. But, of course, they don't need to have that chipset done way ahead of time. And a lot of them have finally begun to put in a wall guarding their development for the in-car technology which kind of frees it up to work on a different schedule, to come into development at a little bit of a later phase.
BERKOWITZBut a lot of it is still done in-house. And although automakers are trying and they're even opening some Silicon Valley offices, they're not operating the same way that a lot of dot-coms are or startups or South Korean or Silicon Valley tech companies. Can they leave it until later? Yes, they can. And I think they're doing that. But, yeah, I agree. It would be great to have the option to just kind of plug in your tablet and go from there.
BERKOWITZAnd we may reach that point down the road. But for now, I think it's -- it functions the same way GPS units do. We used to have those, and still do for some folks, a unit that sits on top of the dash, you buy at Best Buy, you plug it in, and a lot of people prefer the convenience of how something that's just smoothly built in. You don't need to worry about wires and plugs.
BERKOWITZAnd although that can also be worked around with a tablet, the notion of having a completely integrated system and one that gives you access to all of the car's diagnostic information, all of the speed, all the details about the engine, that is not a level of cooperation that automakers have with the tech industry yet. And maybe they do behind the scenes, but it's not something that they're willing to put on sale today or tomorrow.
BROWNWell, we'll see what happens down the road, as they say. Craig, thank you very much for your call. Let's go to Marmadou (sp?) in College Park. And welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MARMADOUYeah. What -- I have two comments and a question. The first one is I think it's really possible today with what (unintelligible)...
BROWNOK. What you're saying -- we have a very bad connection, so I'm going to interpret a little here. You seem to be saying that sensor technology is -- can be very useful in cars to help slow them down and avoid accidents. And how close are we to having workable sensor technology of that sort in cars? Or do we already have it? Damon.
LAVRINCYeah. The Mercedes-Benz was one of the first automakers to introduce what's called the radar assistant cruise control where you can basically set the speed on your cruise control, and there's a series of sensors in front of the vehicle that recognize how far away the vehicle is in front of you. And if, say, a vehicle swerves in front of you and slams on the brakes, the car will slow down and even stop itself. That technology is starting to filter down to lesser model, things that don't cost over $100,000.
LAVRINCAnd we're getting to the point now where within the next -- well, actually later this year, Mercedes-Benz is going to be introducing a system that'll allow you to essentially press a button when you're in start and stop traffic, low-speed traffic, like on a freeway. And it will not only accelerate and brake for you up to about maybe 25 or 30 miles per hour, but it'll also use a set of cameras on the side mirrors to keep you in the lane, so it'll actually steer for you as well. So...
BROWNSo especially on heavy traffic, the sort of commuter traffic...
BROWN...that people despise, you could basically sit there in the car, and it would pretty much take care of itself.
BROWNBoy, what a relief that would be.
WHITEMANAnd it would be very nice. And now, again, like I said, this is for -- this is just for slow-speed traffic. This is just for, you know, bumper-bumper commutes on the freeway and that type of thing.
BROWNBut, you know, that's some of the most annoying traffic there is. And you see a lot of bump-ups in the midst of those long traffic lines and then the accidents occur within that, and the delays get even worse. So that -- you know, this is one of these technological advances that you could really get your hands on pretty quickly, get your mind around.
BERKOWITZAnd it would pretty nicely...
LAVRINCWell, the nice thing...
BERKOWITZ...give people the opportunity to figure out how to use their radio while the car is...
BROWNBeau Whiteman, is Tesla doing anything along these lines in terms of coming up with systems that might help to actually avoid accidents or avoid impacts?
WHITEMANTo be completely honest with you, I don't know.
BROWNMm hmm. Good answer. I like that. I like an honest man.
WHITEMANYou know, that's what I can offer. Continuous R&D is taking place in California. As you can imagine, we're a little bit detached over here on the East Coast.
BROWNRight, but you'll find out when you find out. We're going to take another brief break. We'll be back in just a moment on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown, sitting in for Kojo as we talk about automotive technology. This is WAMU 88.5.
BROWNWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown from NPR News, sitting in for Kojo today. You can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850 as we consider all the new whiz-bang electronic technologies in automobiles, the good, the bad, the ugly. We'd love to know what you want in your next car. And I've got another question here, which is would you trust your car to park for you? And I understand that we've got that sort of technology on the way now. My wife, as I mentioned earlier, bought a Toyota Prius the other week, and it's our third one, actually.
BROWNAnd this one has a camera in the back. So it's got not self-parking, but for the first time in our family, we have an automobile that shows us the view behind the car. And I found that to be a remarkable innovation. Terry doesn't like it as much as I do. She said her brain doesn't work that way. But I frankly like it a lot. So how close are we to getting self-parking, self-driving automobiles? Justin or Damon, which one of you would like to address that first? Damon, you want to go for it?
LAVRINCYeah, sure. Well, I mean, to be honest, we've had self-parking technology for, God, it's got to be the better part of four or five years now. Lexus has had it. Ford's had it. It's a -- it's relatively, actually, easy to implement as far as the sensors are concerned. And this is just parallel parking, just to make it clear to the listeners. You know, self-driving cars are a much, much deeper question. The nice thing is, on the positive side, the technology is very well built out. Most of the stuff that -- and I'm sure some of the listeners have heard of Google's self-driving car.
LAVRINCAll the technology that Google's been using on their self-driving cars for the last couple of years is more or less off-the-shelf technology. That is, stuff that they could purchase, costs about 150-, $200,000. So it's not cheap. But these are all technologies that they could purchase and then hook up to computers and more or less make a completely autonomous driving experience. This is going to be one of those situations, much like any other new technology, where it's a slow roll-out.
LAVRINCSo we're going to start seeing -- you know, we've already seen this automated parking system. Like I mentioned earlier, Mercedes Benz along with Audi, BMW and Cadillac are all working on these kind of low-speed, semi-autonomous driving modes for start-and-stop traffic. But every automaker is looking into some kind of fully autonomous mode at this point. The Germans are leading the way a bit. The Japanese are looking into it as well. And the domestic automakers -- Ford, Chrysler and GM -- all have something in the cards, although they're not saying much at this point.
BROWNWell, that's good to hear. Anything from you, Justin, on this? What are industry sources telling you?
BERKOWITZThe technology to this, as Damon said, it's not impossible to implement, and it's just a question of what people want and what they're willing to pay for and when. It's nice to have a system that'll parallel-park the car for you, but there are a lot of parts of the U.S. -- not in D.C. or New York -- where you don't parallel-park all that often. So you don't need an extra system to do that, but it is something that's available now and surprisingly cool to use. And one hopes that the, you know, system never breaks on you.
BERKOWITZI did want to follow on to what you mentioned just about having a video camera to point backwards. As recently as January, people at NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that they're still looking at a regulation that would require every new car sold to have that backup video camera, and not so much for ease of parking, but to prevent accidents by backing over a person.
BERKOWITZAnd it does tragically happen every year, particularly children in the driveway. So it may be the case, but not just your wife's Prius has it, but every new car, starting in 2015 or '16.
BROWNLet's go to Brian in Gaithersburg, Md. Brian, you're on the air.
BRIANHi. You were asking for comments about, you know, having the computer operate everything. I'm not a fan. I have a car that's sort of a hybrid. Everything does run through the computer. I am a computer geek, but that isn't the interface I want with my car. Even on my laptop, they took my volume control away. I have to use the mouse to change my volume. I think that was a great user interface, even though it still went through the computer process and so forth.
BRIANSo especially when you're driving, you want to keep your eyes on the road mostly. You don't want to be playing with menus and everything else on the screen. So they definitely have to improve it if they're going to go that way. But I still think certain controls need to be simply manual, even if they go through the computer. The other problem I have with the computer, sometimes it glitches out, and, you know, I can't change the radio.
BRIANI can't put my -- my heat doesn't work. I have to stop the car, turn it off, open the door to reboot the system. So they got to make it more reliable as well. But mostly I just think the interface is wrong. For a lot of things, the 90 percent of stuff that you don't do all the time, the menu interface would be fine. But for, you know, the radio, for heat, vent, all those things we are used to having, I think, even if we use the computer, the controls need to be manual and big and, you know, one of the better models.
BRIANI know GM 20 years ago got a million Chiclet buttons. So that was no better than a bunch of menus, but that was idiotic, too. Toyota, other ones did better jobs of making the buttons different for different functions so that you could, just with a feel, know what you were turning up or down and adjust the things you have to while you're driving.
BROWNWell, what do our experts have to say about that? Because that's a topic that seems to come up repeatedly, and I'll have to say that one -- this has happened to us, too, in the Prius one time where we couldn't get audio to play and couldn't switch between it and the navigation system. And the only thing that we could do was to boot the system down, start it back up again. And earlier today, I mentioned that one of the joys, for me, of operating my 16-year-old Volvo is that I know that dashboard, and all I have to do is reach over there.
BROWNEvery switch has its own feel. If it's at night and I'm looking down the road, but I need to operate the wipers or I need to turn the fan or the defroster on, I don't have to take my eye off the road and miss a deer that's walking out into the foggy night or something like that while I'm trying to clear my windshield.
BROWNHow seriously are car manufacturers taking this issue of control accessibility and ease of use without removing your eyes from the road? Because this is about the third time we've heard from listeners on this just in this hour alone. Why don't we start with you, Beau, from what you know on the Tesla and then move on to Justin and to Damon?
WHITEMANSure. Well, you know, it's kind of the double-edged sword of these new touch screens and digital interfaces that are featured in new automobiles. We had the call earlier, the gentleman who, you know, why does everything feel old? And now you have this one that things aren't quite old enough. The way that we have addressed the problem as, at least, we see it is by integrating a fully capacitive 17-inch touch screen right into the dashboard.
WHITEMANReason being because the bigger it is, actually the less distracting it is. The icons can be very large. So simply by glancing over and swiping with your finger, you can adjust which apps are displayed, your heat, your volume. And additionally, all of the controls are also featured on the steering wheel itself through just a small handful of buttons because your instrument cluster is also all digital in our new vehicle.
WHITEMANAnd so the whole reason going back to why we've done it is to make it as customizable as possible so that every owner has what we call as hyper-personal experience. Everyone who drives this car can have it adjusted in a different way. We can have four different apps displayed at a time, two on the instrument cluster, two on the touch screen.
WHITEMANAnd the touch screen, ours at least -- should anything go wrong, the car is still 100 percent drivable because all of those controls can be done through the steering wheel as well. So you'd want to have it serviced, of course, if there was an issue, but everything can be done on the steering wheel. So, you know, in our opinion, the bigger the better.
BROWNYeah. Justin Berkowitz, you know, when I was growing up, and as I said earlier in the show, I'm kind of a gear head. And I actually have an old car as well. I've got a 1968 car that I've been working on for a long time. And when you push the gas pedal, it operates a cable that goes to the carburetor that opens the throat, and fuel goes into the engine and you go. When you push the gas pedal on a modern car, nothing of the sort happens.
BROWNSo it seems that we really are talking to a certain extent, as Brian is here, about the interface issue. It's not so much the control as it is how do you operate the control with the human body. I mean, we haven't changed that much since automobiles came in. And, you know, our hands and our feet and our eyes and our ears are what we have at our disposal to operate these controls.
BROWNIf we can make an interface that opens a throttle using a floor amount of gas pedal that actually has no cable attached it and is basically some sort of electronic device, why can't car makers make controls on dashboards that may be fully electronic but -- that are usable and identifiable by feel for human beings?
BERKOWITZWell, let's be fair to them. I mean, many of these cars, even with the high-tech dashboard, do still offer traditional, physical controls as a duplicate system. And that's true for, I would have to say, 75 percent or more of the automakers that do this. Tesla is an exception because they're selling a very expensive high-tech car to somebody that wants an expensive high-tech car.
BERKOWITZThey don't want manual knobs because you don't want a volume knob on your iPhone. It doesn't fit with the mission. Can we do things that are very practical for cars that do fit that sort of what I desire in it? Yes. But you say that people haven't changed all that much since the '60s. And biologically that may be true, or maybe we're a little wider.
BERKOWITZBut we have changed in what we want. And people, for many of them, many buyers want technology in their car, and they almost want a challenge. They want a little bit to be different to interact with. And maybe they don't want it to be tear-your-hair-out frustrating, but they do want to know that they're driving a kind of new and expensive and high-tech feature. We want to see progress in the car.
BROWNAnd we want to be able to demonstrate it because we're also humans.
BERKOWITZYeah. And -- so I think a lot of the problems has stemmed from automakers looking at parts of the car that worked fine, like turn signals and saying, how do we make this better? What does it need to be made better?
BERKOWITZThe turn signal is fine. You push it one way, you turn signal right. You push the other, you signal left. That's it. But they said, well, what if you tap it a little bit and it flashes three times to the right. Or if it senses, what kind of feeling you have...
BROWNOr you push it down partly and you can let go of it, the way American Motors did years ago. And now that's a standard feature on every car in the world.
BERKOWITZIt is, but not every part of the car needed to be improved. It's not necessary. But they want people to feel like they're getting good value for vehicles that are otherwise quite similar. That's one of the ways they do it.
BROWNWe have a suggestion, I think, from Nathaniel in Bethesda, Md. Nathaniel, you are on the air.
NATHANIELHi. Thanks for a great topic. This is sort of an old technology question, but it's a pet peeve of mine: people driving with their windshield wipers on without headlights. And my understanding is that it's a law in all 50 states that if your wipers are on, your headlights should be on. And I'm wondering why that can't be something that happens automatically. You turned on the wipers and the headlights go on without you needing to change anything.
BROWNJustin Berkowitz, what do you say? What would your industry contacts tell you about something like that? And I have to say, this is a little bit of a pet peeve of mine. And I was driving in some pretty nasty weather the other day, and, guess what, there was someone driving along with his wipers on in a gray silver van in the fog. And had I not somehow managed to see him, well, anything could have happened. So any movement on this sort of thing in the industry?
BERKOWITZI don't have a great answer for you. I mean, you could have a very simple mechanical system that would turn them on.
BERKOWITZI can tell you that more and more cars come with automatic headlights. And that is probably going to eventually overtake this problem or this kind of concern without really addressing it directly.
BROWNMm hmm. Well, let's go to Steve in Crawford, Md. Steve, you are on the air.
STEVEHi. How are you doing? Thanks for taking my call.
STEVESo my concern is -- and I can say this from a personal aspect -- my first car was a manual transmission. And I can say when I had that, I was fully engaged in the driving experience, honestly couldn't even really drink a coffee. And I think that kind of taught me to be very alert on the road. And I still carry that forward over automatic transmission now, and I can drink a coffee.
STEVESomething that is a concern of mine -- and I would like to know if there are any comments from panelists -- is that with things like adaptive cruise control or just regular cruise control, people kind of have that thirst for being engaged and, I guess, just dizzy. And that's why they text. That's why they email. And do you think with all this automation of cars, do you think it almost encourages texting? And my concern is, until cars are completely automated and texting isn't a concern, could some of these safety features actually pose a threat?
BROWNOK. Thanks very much, Steve, for your call. And very briefly, each of the three of you -- sort of our last answer here for the hour -- but how seriously are the automakers taking the safety issues where the new technologies are related? Beau Whiteman of Tesla, is this a serious concern for Tesla?
WHITEMANI mean, absolutely. I think safety has got to be the number one when it comes to new automobiles. You know, the last thing anyone wants to see is something that just encourages people to drive inattentively.
BROWNSo it's a big deal for Tesla? You are -- you guys are working on that. Justin Berkowitz, what do you see in the industry very briefly here?
BERKOWITZIt's -- your caller hit the nail on the head. It's a moral hazard. They can lock out as many systems as they want while you're rolling. But he said it exactly. The cars are completely self-driving, or they're not. And so long as they're not, much of the things you do to make them more safe really just do give the opportunity for more distraction.
BROWNDamon Lavrinc from Wired magazine, transportation editor, what do you see when you talk to people involved in technology? Are the industry people and technology manufacturer seriously concerned about this issue?
LAVRINCYeah, absolutely. And since there is no federal law banning distracted driving or any other kind of -- a ban on texting and that kind of thing, they want to try to deal with this themselves. I think at the end of the day, though, this is really personal responsibility. You have to make this choice yourself. And if you can be smart enough to keep yourself engaged, keep both hands on the wheel and the eyes on the road, you're good to go.
BROWNWell, thanks to all three of you, Beau Whiteman, Justin Berkowitz and Damon Lavrinc, our guests, as we've been discussing electronic technology and cars. I'm Paul Brown, and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5.
Most Recent Shows
The author talks about writing, his ties to the region and literacy advocacy.
Kojo explores how much input the public should have in public art projects and how that squares with the visions of the artists who do the work.
The Arlington County Board halted two long-planned, but long-controversial streetcar projects, saying voters had spoken this month against moving forward. We examine the implications of the decision.