Note to readers, this blog entry is written by Samuel Yules of INEX Advisors, and edited by Chris Rezendes.

The I, Robot world where every person owns a humanoid robot assistant is not upon us, but daily, robotic technology plays new roles in an expanding universe of applications that feature higher levels of autonomy for solutions enabled by connected device solutions.

Much ink is being spilled today about unmanned vehicles—mislabeled drones—and how uncomfortable they are making many people with the prospect of a Terminator or Berserker-like future. These solutions are at the outer edge of what connected devices can become. But there is so much more to the story than Reapers and Ravens. Much ink is being spilled also about the emerging generation of comfort and entertainment systems in passenger cars. But there is much more to that story than in-cab social media.

Huge strides are being made in the power of connected device solutions to enable autonomy. Autonomy in vehicles—semi and full—is an advanced manifestation of SCI (silicon-carbon integration), a term we use at INEX Advisors. SCI is accomplished when an interactive relationship exists between silicon technology (robotic and autonomous system) and carbon (humans) beyond smart phones. SCI was a key topic at the presentations from INEX Advisors at Connected World Conference. SCI was presented within the context of The Continuum, an INEX model that describes the basic functional domains of connected devices — starting with the now-ubiquitous ability to identify an asset, inventory element or other key resource, advancing through location, status about a remote asset. SCI is at the end of the continuum. 

Vehicular autonomy – the outer edge of connected cars — is fitting to pick up on because it’s where Laura Billingsley and Mike Carrozzo left off in their recent connected vehicle discussions. This post aims to go beyond the recent focus on comfort and entertainment connectivity to remind us of the many current applications of connectivity in automobiles and other vehicle markets that have made more progress in automated vehicles.

Take ABS (anti-locking breaks) for example. When ABS technology was deployed, computers took over braking from the driver. Now, when a driver hits the brake pedal, this pressure is translated into an electronic signal that applies a correlated amount of braking pressure. ABS technology rapidly pulses the brakes against the spinning wheels slowing down a car significantly faster than a driver could while avoiding brake lockage. 

And we were uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the way that the brake gave feedback. Uncomfortable with the way that we were NOT in control of our cars—even as ABS insured that we would not lose control due to our natural reaction to lock up our brakes in a number of emergency response scenarios. Quite a paradox, no? It took a fair amount of education and training, and sophisticated engineering to get the technology and the consumers to converge on ABS. 

Or was it the insurance companies? 

The list of current autonomous—semi or full—SCI technology embedded in passenger cars goes on. Traction control automatically monitors wheel spin and slippage and alters power to slipping and non-slipping wheels to balance out engine usage so the vehicle avoids skidding. Advanced steering systems sense under or over steer and modulate the differential between the wheel in the driver’s hand and the articulation of the wheel at the end of the axle, on the ground.

Dozens of other robotic systems already exist in our cars—electronic fuel injection, electronically controlled transmissions, airbags, and more. And while the entertainment systems in cars are becoming automated (with voice activation and hands-free commands) so too are the “hidden” systems within the car. 

And now, we are offered—confronted perhaps—with the possibility that we can be transported in increasingly more autonomously operated vehicles replete with ‘advances’ in entertainment systems.  

And yet, commitment to robotic technology still worries people. Who is comfortable with driving down a highway at 70 mph in a car entirely controlled by a computer? Who is comfortable with driving down a highway at 70 mph in a car not entirely controlled by a human who is distracted by testing? 

What’s the point? The point is we might have it backwards. Instead of all the fear and loathing over autonomy and all the heavy breathing over driver connectivity (in some cases to vapid, non-value applications such as real-time social media status updates) perhaps we should insure that the horse comes before the cart. 

We need to get over our loss of control issues with semi-autonomous systems in our cars and look into other markets where these capabilities—from semi-autonomy to full—are delivering significant gains in safety, efficiency, and productivity. We need to demand an intelligence pacing to as much of this functionality as we can manage and afford. We need to put safety and security ahead of comfort and convenience … and WAY ahead of entertainment and distraction.
1. Airplanes. Modern commercial airplanes fly 30,000 feet above ground. At this altitude, airplanes use autopilot features (the aircraft is flown entirely by computers), and the pilots monitor realtime data and ensure the flight is going according to plan. In fact, pilots are only in control of the plane during, in my opinion, the most stressful parts off the flight: takeoff, taxing, and landing.

2. Military vehicles. Our Armed Forces have employed almost 10,000 unmanned vehicles used for reconnaissance, transportation, and IED detection and removal, saving lives every day. Some vehicles are remote controlled by an off-site operator while others are deployed in fully autonomous modes operating on the battlefield. These vehicles come in all shapes and sizes from the size of tanks to children’s RC helicopters.

3. Agriculture. My green thumb tells me the most fascinating use of connected vehicle devices is autonomous technology dominating agriculture and mining equipment. Take the FP7 cRops project, which promises an automated vehicle capable of maintaining and harvesting fresh produce to relieve the high injury and unsustainable current agriculture system.

These other markets may it that consumer vehicles are not as far along as others vehicles, but this may be misleading. Most robotic technology is hidden to the driver, flying under the radar. Also, the security and defense benefit from big capital, fewer regulations, and urgent demands for autonomy. But the biggest barrier for passenger vehicle autonomy is the nature of the system them operate in. Autonomous cars need to navigate through crowded streets as opposed to remote warehouses, which is the system for industrial robots. Robotic cars need to function in uncontrolled scenarios and react to “random” events such as pedestrian crossings. The easiest scenarios, ones that are closed controlled systems with repeated inputs, such as braking, have already been solved by automated technology.

So What Should We Fear Moving Forward?
1. Don’t fear autonomous technology that will enable safety, security, and efficiency in the passenger-car market. Complete SCI integration is happening. Technology is being developed so that cars not only will be able to drive themselves safely through the most crowded conditions but also communicate with other cars. This will allow your car to seek alternate routes if a traffic jam on your route is detected, or even locate a parking spot in a crowded super size lot. The possibilities of this technology are endless and lead to a more efficient automobile system. 

2. Do fear connected devices in the entertainment, information, and comfort realm. The more advanced HMI (human machine interface) becomes, the more we will talk to our car, asking for directions, or talking on our cellphone using Bluetooth. This will just lead to multitasking, which makes us worse at the tasks we manage, resulting in distracted driving. Any new technology that takes our focus off the road should not be taken lightly. A distracted driver is a dangerous one.

3. Don’t fear the future of autonomous cars. Soon enough, our cars will be driving themselves, opening up thousands of opportunities for vehicle efficiency, safety, and comfort. Some bold predictors are even saying this technology could be the end of car accidents. What’s bad about that?