Report from Barcelona: first meeting of the W3C automotive business group

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the first face-to-face meeting of the W3C automotive business group and the honor of being nominated group co-chair. (The other co-chair is Adam Abramski, an open source project manager for Intel.) With more than 70 members, the group has already become the eight-largest group in the W3C, even though it is barely two months old. Clearly, it’s generating a lot of interest.

The meeting included three presentations and two contributions. I presented on the lessons we’ve learned with the QNX CAR platform, how we think the market is changing, and how these changes should drive HTML5 standardization efforts.

I presented my three “musts” for standardizing HTML5 in the car:
  1. Must create something designed to run apps, not HMIs (unless HMIs come along for free)
  2. Must focus on mobile developers as the target development audience
  3. Must support integration of HTML5 environments with native environments like EB Guide and Qt
I described some of the changes that have resulted from the alignment of the QNX CAR platform with the Apache Cordova framework, and why they are crucial to our HTML5 work. Unfortunately, we didn't have our W3C contribution ready due to these changes, but members generally agreed that having a standard consistent with mobile development was an appropriate course change.

Tizen and GenIVI gave presentations about their vehicle APIs. Tizen has contributed its APIs, but GenIVI hasn't yet — still waiting on final approvals. Webinos contributed its APIs before the meeting, but didn’t deliver a presentation on its contribution; members had reviewed the Webinos work before the meeting.

The meeting was a great chance to sit down with people I don’t normally meet. Overall, the group is moving in the right direction, creating a standard that can help automakers bring the goodness of HTML5 into the car.

Autonomous, not driverless

Paul Leroux
I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to the era of self-driving cars. After all, why spend countless hours negotiating rush-hour traffic when the car could do all the work? Just think of all the things you could do instead: read a novel, Facebook with friends, or even watch Babylon 5 re-runs.

Unlike Babylon 5, this scenario is no longer a page out of science fiction. It’s coming soon, faster than many imagine. That said, the story of the self-driving car still has a few unfinished chapters — chapters in which the human driver still has an important role to play. Yes, that means you.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the fully autonomous car is a work in progress. In fact, some of the technologies that will enable cars to drive themselves (adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance, etc.) are already in place. Moreover, research suggests that these technologies can, among other things, improve traffic flow and reduce accidents. But does that mean you will soon be able to sit back, close your eyes, and let the car do everything? Not quite.

Evolution, not revolution
If you ask me, Thilo Koslowski of Gartner hit the bull's eye when he said that self-driving cars will go through three evolutionary phases: from automated to autonomous to unmanned. Until we reach the endpoint, we should pay heed to the words of Toyota's Jim Pisz: autonomous does not mean driverless.

If planes can do it…
Some folks hear this and are disappointed. They point to auto-pilot technology in planes and ask why we can’t have driverless cars sooner than later. The argument goes something like this: "It's much harder to fly a plane, yet we have no problem with a computer handling such a complex task. So why not let a computer drive your car?”

If only life were so simple. For one thing, automakers will have to make autonomous cars affordable — doable but not easy. They’ll also have to negotiate a variety of legal hurdles. And in any case, driving and flying have less in common than you might think.

When you drive, you must remain alert on a continuous basis. Lose your attention for a second, and you stand a good chance of hitting something or somebody. The same doesn't always hold true in flight. When a plane is cruising at 30,000 feet along a proscribed flight path, the pilot can avert his or her attention for 5 seconds and incur little chance of hitting anything. In comparison, a driver who becomes distracted for 5 seconds is hell on wheels.

And, of course, auto-pilot doesn’t mean pilot-less. As Ricky Hudi of Audi points out, pilots may rely on autopilot, but they still retain full responsibility for flying the plane. So just because your car is on auto-pilot doesn’t mean you can watch YouTube on your tablet. Bummer, I know.

An alarming solution
Source: Modern Mechanix blog (and yes, that should 
read Frankfurt)

All of which to say, the driver of an autonomous car will have to remain alert most or all of the time — until, of course, autonomous vehicles become better than humans at handling every potential scenario. Now that could happen, but it will take a while.

It seems that someone anticipated this problem in the early 50s when they invented “alarming glasses” — take a gander at the accompanying photo from the August 1951 issue of Modern Mechanix.

Scoff if you will, but a kinder and gentler form of this technology is exactly what autonomous cars need. No, I'm not suggesting that scientists find a better way to glue wires to eyelids. But I am saying that, until cars become fully and safely autonomous, drivers will need to pay attention — after all, it’s tempting to drift off when the car is doing all the work. And, indeed, technologies to keep drivers alert are already being developed.

Pre-warned means prepared
Mind you, it isn’t enough to keep the driver alert; the car may also need to issue “pre-warnings” for when the driver needs to take over. For instance, let’s say driving conditions become too challenging for the car’s autonomous mode to handle — these could heavy rain, a street filled with pedestrians, or an area where lane markers are obscured by snow. In that case, the car can’t wait until it can no longer drive itself before alerting the driver, for the simple reason that the driver may simply take too long to assess the situation. The car will need to provide ample warning ahead of time.

The more, the better
That cars will become autonomous is inevitable. In fact, the more autonomous, the better, as far I'm concerned. Research already suggests that technologies for enabling autonomous driving can, in many cases, do a better job of avoiding accidents and improving traffic flow than human drivers. They also seem to do better at things like parallel parking — a task that has caused more than one student driver to fail a driving test.

But does this all mean that, as a driver, I can stop paying attention? Not in the near future. But someday.

Goodbye passwords, hello biometrics

Let's face it — passwords suck.

Every day we have to recall all manner of alphanumeric combinations for bank PINs, network log-ons, corporate email, social networking, and e-commerce. According to Microsoft Research, the average user types eight passwords per day.

During a talk at last year's SAE Convergence, Joseph Carra from the US Department of Transportation said, “Passwords have to go” ... a breath of fresh air for those of us who rely heavily on the "forgot password" option. The stage is set, according to Carra, for biometrics to replace passwords in the vehicle.

Using biometrics for driver preferences is nothing new — my favorite example is a car seat that can identify you by the shape of your butt — but using them to replace passwords makes perfect sense.

Ultrasound fingerprinting, iris scans, facial recognition, signature dynamics, voice recognition, keystroke dynamics, hand geometry, skin patterns, and foot dynamics are already being used in enterprise security, law enforcement, border control, ATM transactions, and so on. And second-gen biometrics promise to pump up the Sci-Fi factor with neural wave analysis, electro-physiological biometrics, skin luminescence, body odor, and so on.

Many technologies eventually find their way into the car after becoming popular elsewhere — mobile telephony, media players, GPS navigation, etc. I can’t think of too many world-changing technologies that got their start inside the car. But given the innovative trajectory of today’s auto industry, that may be about to change.