Driving has always been a deeply immersive experience.
More so in the early days of the automobile, over a century ago, of course. Then, the driver was very much exposed to the elements. Wind, pelting rain, sleet or snow were an avoidable part of the motoring experience. So was dust in the eyes and bugs in your teeth. And the driver’s connection to the vehicle itself was much more primal in nature. There were no hydraulically boosted steering systems. There wasn’t even a starting assist system. Turning over an engine meant literally turning an engine over with muscle power. Gearboxes were unsynchronized. and manual brakes meant putting your foot into it in the most intense kind of way. And, of course, on top of all that, drivers had to deal with bad roads, horses, pedestrians as well as other drivers who – in most cases – weren’t particularly well-trained or adept at operating these new-fangled automobiles.
Driving is like any other skill set. Some of us are naturals at it. Most of us, through training and experience, get reasonably good behind the wheel. Some of us are just hopeless at the task.
Being a good driver takes a combination of many different skill sets. But one of the most crucial – and difficult to attain – is a visceral connection with the vehicle itself. An ability, often instinctive in really good drivers, to wring the absolute most out of a vehicle’s performance regardless what the task is.
Equally important is what the Air Force calls “situational awareness.” That is the ability to track, understand and – to a certain extent – predict what’s happening in the highly dynamic, chaotic driving conditions we are immersed in every day. Good drivers know everything that’s going on around them. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what’s going on around our vehicles. Some of us are overwhelmed as soon as conditions start to get busy and hectic.
A lot of time, effort and technology has been invested over the past century at helping everyday drivers attain a better “feel” for the vehicles they’re driving while enhancing situational awareness.
Over the past century, a steady stream of improved vehicle systems have helped drivers get more and easier control over their vehicles, enabling them to be safer in traffic conditions and speeds that would have struck early motorists as insanely dangerous. Rear-view mirrors, turn signals, windshield wipers, and automatic transmissions are just a few examples of this long-running trend.
Today, we seem to be on the cusp of a whole new age in terms of the driver-vehicle interface. The basic systems that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past 50-plus years are now getting revolutionary breakthroughs from modern technologies such as radar, lidar, GPS, AI and camera systems – to name but a few.
And I think one of the most effective systems in terms of safety and the driver-vehicle interface will be artificially intelligent “personal assistants” such as the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home. Americans have bought these snazzy little machines at an astounding rate, and their capabilities are increasing at exponential rates. Lighting, TV stations, home security and scheduling are just a few of the chores these devices can help with.
And unless I miss my guess, Alexa and her friends will soon be helping commercial drivers work smarter and safer as they’re going about their business moving freight and packages around this country.
We’re already seeing personal assistants moving into luxury car markets. And we all know how these trends work by now: They will soon trickle down into medium-market cars. Then economy cars. And – at some point – into medium-duty trucks and vans and, eventually, heavy-duty trucks.
Obviously there are some ambient noise issues that will have to be worked out before personal assistants can be reliably used in the cab of a Class 8 truck. But, once they’re in place, it doesn’t take a genius to see how useful they could be:
Alexa, How much oil life do I have left before I need to schedule service?
Alexa, How many miles and minutes until I reach the TA Truck Stop outside of Laredo?
Alexa, Text Robin: “Remember Taylor Swift tickets go on sale tomorrow!”
Alexa, Text Bob at GCR Warehouse: “I am on schedule and will be at Dock 18 on time at 1:30 pm.”
Alexa, Where is the nearest Continental tire dealer?
Alexa, Play “Diver Down” by Van Halen
Alexa, Alert me whenever that brown SUV following us gets into my blind spot.
Keep in mind, though, that using a personal assistant is a two-way partnership. Which raises the possibility of help on a more interactive level:
Hi, Bob. You’ve crossed the white line and gone out of your lane four times in the last half hour. Perhaps it’s time to stop and rest.
Hi, Bob. According to Waze, there is an accident and a road closure 20 miles ahead. Current delay time is 57 minutes. I suggest you take Exit 34 ahead and go north on State Highway 19 for 47 miles to bypass this accident.
Hi, Bob. The maximum speed for the on-ramp ahead is 45 mph. Please brake now.
Or (and I know the mere suggestion of this will drive some people crazy):
Hi, Bob – You have been driving erratically and crossed out of your lane 17 times in the past half-hour. If you do not pull over and rest, I will have no choice but to de-rate the engine or contact local authorities to check on you.
The possibilities these personal assistants have for fleet operators and drivers are fascinating to consider. And, as with any new technology, some of these potential capabilities probably sound incredibly useful. Others may feel like they’re crossing some sort of line.
But in terms of keeping drivers’ hands on the wheel and minds focused on what’s going on around them, there’s the potential for a very real increase in both safety and productivity with personal assistants lending a hand inside the cab.