I’m not looking for an iPad shaped like a car

Last year at OSCON I heard an automobile manufacturer employee describe their product as a “mobile container for electronics, now it’s an iPad shaped like a car.” More recently I spoke with a chip manufacturer about their vision for compute power in the car – lots and lots of it powering everything from driver assist functions to computer vision and other computational intensive tasks. (Aside: are you ready for your computer to watch your face from a visor mounted camera and decide if you look too sleepy, or perhaps ragey, to keep driving?). Soon there will be enough high-clock-rate CPU and GPU in the trunk to make your car like a mini mobile datacenter, and for it to make a meaningful dent in the car’s energy consumption.

It’s fascinating to think what cars will be when their trunks are full of teraflops. I don’t think self-driving and social-connected infotainment are the only interesting outcomes (I sure as hell hope it’s not just the latter). I’m confident there will be some surprises ahead as engineers and designers have the chance to pull concrete improvements out of these new capabilities (Mini’s predictive shifting [pdf, section 5] hints at one new kind of possibility). I also think the moment that driving becomes an immoral act when the automated version is both safer and more efficient is going to be a difficult one for society (and me) to accept. But that’s the topic for a different post.

What I’m really interested here is the way automobile manufacturers and their suppliers are rushing to fill our cars with digital unnecessaria in an era when 60mpg still qualifies as a huge win. This post is about is about the basics. About cars as means of transportation, and the more efficient the better. I simply can’t understand why most automobile manufacturers seem so disinterested (although VW does seem to pop up a lot on the interesting side of the ledger).

If you are the least bit a gear head and haven’t read Jason Fagone’s Ingenious yet, pick it up. It’s a great read with the takeaway that the 200mpg car is difficult, but achievable. Right. Now. And while Tesla crows about its 89 mpge and .24 Cd, that thing is a fat-faced tank. I mean, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and I’ll give Musk and crew a ton of credit for getting people’s heads wrapped around the idea of the viable electric car, but the fact remains that that car weighs a porky-assed 4,650lbs and its conventional layout makes sure that it has a big frontal working against its good Cd. 

Bits can only so much after all, in the world of atoms physics is still physics, even if your car has batteries and it’s own Android app. Automated cars will platoon and hyper-mile by default which will helpfully optimize our fat and heavy cars. But what we really need are lighter cars (by an order of magnitude), with small frontal areas and great Cd’s, have better power plants (when can I get my diesel electric hybrid?), and full of tricks like energy recovering suspension. In short, there is a lot of core R+D left to be done before automobile manufactures call efficiency and safety a solved problem and shift all of their focus to where to put all the OLEDs on the dashboard.

Unfortunately, what most of them seem to be saying with word and deed is “Yes, we may have hit peak oil, we may be warming the planet with our exhaust, and we may still be killing 35,000 of your countrymen, woman and children every year, but what we really think you’ll buy is the same old steel-clad beast, but now with a cool display screen on the dashboard and a disembodied digital assistant to read your tweets to you while you disinterestedly drive. And maybe we will, markets being democratic and all, so maybe it’s not them, it’s us.

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