There was a time when Silicon Valley executives and inventors alike would point to cars as the perfect technology. They were, after all, among the easiest-to-use machines around – you just put your key in and they worked.
Now, with cars increasingly becoming computers on wheels and all the complexity that entails, the age of simplicity seems gone forever. With lane detection, touch-screen consoles, LTE wireless and a seemingly never-ending stream of technological features being added to every successive model, the humble automobile is quickly becoming one of the most complicated gadgets on the market.
This is proving to be a problem for auto makers, both because they're risking alienating drivers used to simplicity and because the increasing complexity can lead to safety problems. Cars that are hard to control or that have too much going on inside them can cause accidents.
"The number of different controls on [just] a seat is a bewildering array of complexity to some people," says Thomas Bloor, manager of global business development for BlackBerry QNX. "There needs to be some simplification."
The growing problem means manufacturers are looking at a variety of different options for simplifying how vehicles work.
One possible solution is voice control, a technology feature that many major auto makers are quickly adopting.
At the recent CES in Las Vegas, Ford and Volkswagen both announced they would integrate Amazon's Alexa – the artificially intelligent voice assistant found in the online retailer's Echo home speakers – into future vehicles. Alexa will allow drivers to verbally control navigation systems, weather information, entertainment features and more.
Similarly, Nissan and BMW said they were looking to bring Microsoft's AI assistant, Cortana, into their vehicles. Several car makers are also experimenting with voice controls via Apple's Siri and Google's Android Auto.
Such controls are starting to take off in smartphones and home gadgets, mainly because the voice recognition and natural-language-processing software that powers them has improved to the point where they're mostly accurate.
Bloor says it shouldn't take long for auto makers to tweak the assistants to work more smoothly with the technological features in cars.
"You might say, 'I'm too hot,' and it'll pull the temperature down for you," he says. "These are simple commands where you don't have to understand a complex hierarchy of terminology."
Ford, for one, is also hoping to avoid unnecessary future complexity by skipping a step in the industry's generally agreed-upon five-stage process toward autonomous vehicles. In phase one, cars typically have few or no automatic functions, while in phase two they have some features such as adaptive cruise control or automatic braking.
In phase three – the level Ford wants to skip – the self-driving car hands control back to a human driver when it doesn't know what to do. Phase four is full autonomy, while phase five extends that self-driving to extreme conditions such as dirt roads.
"[Level three] is really hard to do. People stop paying attention and it's actually less safe," says Schuyler Cohen, supervisor of autonomous-vehicles localization and mapping for Ford. "Level four is not just 10 of these features slapped together. It's a totally different car."
Other car makers are also looking to avoid complexity as they move toward autonomy, not just for car occupants, but also for pedestrians and other drivers on the road.
Nissan hired anthropologist Melissa Cefkin away from IBM in 2015 to lead a special research group in Sunnyvale, Calif. The team's job is to analyze how new technological features and capabilities will affect people, and to speak up on their behalf if they see issues.
One particular area of focus right now is figuring out how to mitigate the new complexities that self-driving cars will inevitably add to roads.
With such vehicles likely behaving differently than human drivers and making up a minority of traffic for the foreseeable future, Cefkin is anticipating a rise in uncertainty among all road users.
To that effect, her group is experimenting with "intention indicators," or light strips that run along the length of a car. The strips would act as enhanced signal indications by giving other drivers and pedestrians a clearer picture of what an autonomous vehicle is about to do before it actually turns, stops or brakes.
"It's based on research on misunderstandings that could get worse in the future," she says. "This is an area where we have to be careful not to make it too complex, obviously."
Over all, industry analysts suggest the growing complexity of vehicles might be a phenomenon that will soon pass. Aside from mitigating efforts by manufacturers, many drivers and passengers are increasingly catching up to the technology anyway just as a course of everyday life.
"We're all starting to become more globally used to it via the phone you hold in your hand," IHS Markit auto analyst Mark Boyadjis says.
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