Google has already made our phones smarter, not to mention our glasses, watches and even our homes. Now it wants to do the same for cars. Vehicles that can drive themselves sound like something out of science fiction, but they are an increasingly everyday occurrence in the city of Mountain View, California, thanks to Google. For those outside of Silicon Valley, a fleet of new cars will also soon hit the roads worldwide with built-in Google Maps and more thanks to Android Auto. Involving over 30 different motor manufacturers as varied as Skoda and Alpha Romeo, we ask the experts if Google’s roadmap to revolutionise the car industry can really be done.
Google’s self-driving car
Self-driving cars aren’t a new concept by any means, but Google is the first to look at bringing the idea for a more widespread consumer release. The development of its own autonomous car has been slow and filled with plenty of problems along the way. Initial testing has been positive though, with Google already securing several American states that are keen to trial Google’s vision of the future. Similarly, the UK is soon to pass legislation to let self-driving cars on its roads, albeit with a whole host of restrictions. “Self-driving cars on public roads is viable,” says Kevin Curran, senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “The most well known self-driving project run by Google has actually driven over 700,000 autonomous miles already and we can expect increased roadway capacity and reduced traffic congestion when they roll out to consumers.”
It can be expected that self-driving cars won’t be without their faults, however, as there’s still an element of the unknown involved with them, as Curran goes on to explain: “One problem with the famous Google self-driving car grand experiment is the sheer amount of computing power used in both the actual driving and the pre-preparation stage where streets in Mountain View are mapped in great detail recording measurements such as the height of curbs and road signs. The main issue however is deciding who is ultimately responsible when things go bad. I mean in a collision, is it simply the car manufacturer or driver? You see when you really think about it from a legal perspective, you really do have to wonder if they will ever be allowed.”
Working in conjunction with an array of car manufacturers will undoubtedly help Google work out many of the possible mechanical faults that every motorist faces, but it’s still that fear of the unknown, which could restrict the project’s initial success. Without doubt, it’s important that Google first gets users onboard with its new interface, which is soon to be interlinked within many consumer cars and named Android Auto.
Understanding Android Auto
Thanks to the popularity of Ford’s SYNC App Link program, which runs a slick user interface within a range of its cars, Android Auto is Google’s aim to provide a single computer interface for a wide variety of manufacturers. From the outset, it’s very much designed in line with the current style of the usual Android interface, but to abide to current road laws, it remains completely hands-free, apart from the initial connecting and disconnecting between phone and interface.
Users will be able to sync their phone directly to their car and have a quick way of getting their Play Music playlists blasting through the car’s speakers. Similarly, Google’s superb voice function will provide a way for users to listen and respond to phone calls and text messages with their voice, or simply choose to respond later to it. To take it one step further, and to highlight Google’s vision of a more connected future, users will be able to connect many third-party apps from their device onto the new interface, but with certain restrictions.
Again, it’s finding that balance between safety and usability that Google needs to really perfect. Thomas Kurfess PhD, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech, believes that Android Auto may have more benefits for the driver than we initially think: “If there is more interaction with the driver, then Android Auto can off-load some of the driver responsibilities onto the vehicle. For example, if the car is driving itself, the driver can view the map in the heads-up display. If a problem develops in front of the vehicle, the car can execute some initial reactions such as releasing the throttle, engaging the brake and tightening the seat belt, which will give the driver time to change their focus from the map on the heads-up display to the situation at hand. I think that if it is integrated into the vehicle appropriately, then it will open up a new realm of transportation.”
Open Automotive Alliance
Holding Google’s vision of the road together is its Open Automotive Alliance. This is a partnership between Google, 28 automotive partners and a selection of specialised technology partners, who are currently working together to enhance every driver’s experience. From Google’s point of view, it’s an invaluable resource for getting the leading players in the automotive industry to become a part of its vision, learning the possible shortfalls that they could face from a mechanical point of view and quashing any worries that manufacturers may have about integrating the Android Auto system into its cars. Both Hyundai and Renault have recently been showing off an early demo of the Android Auto system being used in one of their cars. Each has looked to use it in a slightly different way, but both have fully embraced Google’s connected future.
Although for the time being it looks like we won’t be seeing any newly manufactured cars getting the Android Auto treatment, some believe that existing models could be modified. “I think self-driving features will be added to existing models, much the same way that airbags, traction control systems etc have been added to existing cars over the years,” says Jason Lancaster, editor of AccurateAutoAdvice.com. “It’s hard to imagine that consumers will invest heavily in car-based computer systems, however.” When considering both the positives and negatives of what car manufacturers will get from this partnership, a new autonomous system could have several impacts on them. First and foremost, they have to consider if their base of drivers are ready for such features. It’s okay for those in the know to get involved with Android Auto, but certain manufacturers have predominantly older clientele, who may not be so forthcoming with their support. Similarly, the various safety aspects of having a computer-based interface distracting drivers will be a massive concern to some. There are a lot of things for Google to consider before launching Android Auto and its self-driving car to the market. But if anyone can do it, Google can. (Source: Android Magz Issue 42)