Google image of its self-driving car – with passenger but steered by the smart phone app. Photograph: AP
Enough of Apple Watches. Tucked into Tim Cook’s keynote on Monday was a nod to something much more significant. “Every major car brand,” he declared, “has committed to delivering CarPlay, with more than 40 new models of cars shipping with CarPlay, only a year after launch.”
CarPlay – Cupertino’s proprietary twin to Google’s Android Auto – is Apple’s recipe for integrating its devices with every vehicle in the world. And while you may never have heard of either, they offer a window into the most intriguing environment around for debating our future relationships with technology.
Why do I think that a field I sincerely hope won’t become known as “drivables” matters more than wearables? Because, despite the hype, technologists have yet to demonstrate that most people either need or want to connect their smartphones to their wrists and faces. When it comes to driving and being driven, however – or simply sharing a public space with vehicles of any kind – we’re already knee-deep in unrealised needs, anxieties and desires.
For those of us who do drive, the moment we get behind the wheel we are embarking upon the most skilled, perilous and logistically fraught act of our daily lives. We’re sitting inside the most expensive hunk of consumer technology we own. We’re expected to operate this pricey and potentially lethal device safely, in public, alongside tens of thousands of other people. And we have also brought with us a world of information that we wish seamlessly to connect to our vehicle’s systems – which in turn demands intuitive, hands-free interactions like voice control and context-sensitive response. Little wonder tech companies are salivating over the prospects.
Much has been made of self-driving cars over the last few years – and rightly so, given how radical a demonstration they offer of the cutting edge of artificial intelligence. When it comes to the practicalities of vehicles and roads, though, the real story is machine assistance. We’re already getting used to cars that can park themselves, maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, and detect when we’re starting to nod off. What’s next? The key question is not whether autonomous systems will take over, but rather how they might help us to improve our own performance. And this in turn means asking what we mean by human performance.
So much current technology is designed to distract – to capture brief attention, to place adverts for a few seconds in front of eyeballs – that it’s easy to imagine the future as more of the same. We strap a tiny second screen to our wrist; we lodge an even tinier one in front of an eye; we seek more effortless status updates, more variables tracked, more abstraction of everyday experience into metrics. This is the model. It’s hardly a set of principles designed to assist our performance in tasks requiring both excellence and consistency – or where the price of failure is as high as it can get.
Let’s be clear: I’m not arguing that cars are going to save the world, or even that making and buying more of the things is a good idea. It’s just that, seen in the right light, they can help us think differently and more richly about human-machine interactions. For if vehicles are where an “everything, anywhere, anytime” culture meets the limitations of the human animal, they’re also a place that urgently begs us to explore the full nature of our attention, focus and capabilities; and to do so collectively, in terms of physical as well as virtual space.
After all, roads aren’t a free-for all: they’re a test bed for governments, public servants and legislators as well as private companies and citizens. They self-evidently demand legislation balancing safety and responsibility, not to mention massive public investment and oversight. Inscrutable algorithms and blanket claims cut little ice in this arena: testing, transparency and accountability are the order of the day (privacy and security concerns are quite another story). Both digital libertarians and secrecy-loving corporations could learn a lot.
Through all of this, there is also a need for developing interfaces that present information to people in the form of a rich experience that people are good at processing: things like head-up displays projected across the windscreen so you don’t need to look down at dials; visually intuitive real-time representations of fuel consumption and power allocation; a smart navigation system suitably and safely mapped onto the vehicle’s own systems, with due consideration of what “smart” and “safely” ought to mean.
There’s something far more interesting going on here than in Apple’s story of space-age bling. Visions of a digital future shouldn’t be defined by solid gold status symbols and constant interruptions. We must ask more of our tools – by allowing them to ask more of us.
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