Thursday, August 8, 2013

From Hollerith to HTML5: the inevitable rise of the programmable car

Paul Leroux
Some people are crazy good at predicting the future. Case in point: Nicola Tesla. In 1909 he proclaimed that "everyone in the world" would one day communicate with wireless handheld devices. At the time, people must have thought he was, well, crazy. But look around you: when's the last time you weren't surrounded by people using wireless handhelds?

Over the years, the auto industry has produced many technology visionaries who share this talent for prognostication. Mind you, visionary is probably the wrong word. Many of these people didn’t simply envision the future; they tried to build it. All too often, however, the technology needed to make their ideas work was still in its infancy — or simply didn't exist yet.

For evidence, consider the ITER AVTO. Introduced in 1930, this dash-mounted navigation system used maps printed on rolls of paper. These maps were connected by a cable to the speedometer and would scroll forward in proportion to the car’s speed. It was all pretty cool, provided you didn’t make a turn — otherwise, quick, change rolls! Basically, a great idea hampered by the tech of its time:

Source: Dieselpunks

For another example, consider these “alarming” glasses, which made their debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1951. The concept was simple: monitor eye movements to determine whether the driver is falling asleep; if so, sound an alarm. Just one problem: to detect eye movement, the glasses used a thin steel wire pressed against the driver’s eyelids. It was another great idea that needed yet-to-be invented technology — in this case, inexpensive (and non-invasive) eye-tracking cameras — to work.

Source: Modern Mechanix blog

And then there’s the 1969 Buick Century Cruiser, an autonomous concept car that used punch cards to program the car’s destination. The driver would insert a card encoded with a destination, and an electronic highway center (whatever that was) would then take over and guide the car to where it was programmed to go.

Source: Car Styling 2.0 

The car was never intended to be sold, of course. To be commercially viable, it would have required technologies that simply weren't available in 1969.

But you know what? I think the Century Cruiser represents a watershed concept: that you can use software to control or enhance a car's behavior. The Century Cruiser may have used Hollerith cards, but it presaged vehicles that, in a few short years, would use programming languages like C to control ECUs and anti-lock brakes. From there, it was only a matter of time before cars would use software technologies like HTML5 to deliver everything from weather reports to smartphone integration. The software path was set, even if no one realized it yet.

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