The Future of the Car

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The future is in the hands of amateurs. Someone should tell the auto industry.

The Big Money's Matthew DeBord wonders which car company will follow in Apple's footsteps and develop what he calls the first iCar, "remaking mobility along the lines of technological innovation, and powering it with electricity." He focuses mostly on the electricity bit, but it's the first part of the quote that really matters.

The car company that leads the industry into the future will be the first one to internalize a key lesson of the past decade in tech: you need a platform that amateurs and third-party professionals can use to innovate from the outside.

Such a platform, ideally open source, could result in an explosion of development. In its first 18 months, Apple's app store has accumulated an estimated 140,000 apps, while the slightly younger market for Google's open-source, mobile Android operating system hosts 30,000 apps, according to MobileCrunch.

What the platform would be or specifically control is up to the industry, but it should allow easy access to the most of the functions of the car. While safety is a concern -- imagine being hacked and shut down on the highway -- the car's vital functions can be isolated from such a platform.

It's not that the industry doesn't have cool technology to offer from within. Five major manufacturers are offering 2010 models that self-park and GM recently demonstrated an amazing augmented reality windshield (video below) that highlights road signs and the road itself in bad conditions.

But imagine if the GM windshield were opened up to third-party apps. The car could tell you when you pass a restaurant you like or let you know that the store coming up has an item on your shopping list. It could let you know that the gas station coming up on the right has the cheapest prices or is the last one for 60 miles and you only have enough for 30. GM will undoubtedly think of some such uses, but without a platform GM owners won't be able to take advantage of amateur ingenuity or technological advances made after the car is released.

Car companies are notoriously slow to innovate. Even though they are showing off some interesting and useful in-car tech at this years' South by Southwest Interactive festival, most of the innovations being touted won't be available for at least five years.

Some within the industry are starting to understand the problem. "There's definitely a case for the notion that customers want to be able to change. The same user interface isn't necessarily appropriate for everyone, " T.J. Giuli, a Ford vehicle software systems engineer, told CNET.

With access to a platform that can be updated and customized, we won't have to wait for the industry to catch up.

There is at least one open source car company, Local Motors in Massachusetts, which was profiled in the February cover story of Wired magazine. But Local Motors is more focused on opening the construction end of things (the design was crowdsourced and customers put together the car in "assembly centers") and less focused on the technology within.

Local Motors isn't just tapping into a niche market of amateur mechanics. It's harnessing a wider do-it-yourself boom that Wired's Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson has called "the next industrial revolution."

Change happens, he writes, "when industries democratize, when they're ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks." It happened to publishing, broadcasting, and communications thanks to the Internet and now it's happening to manufacturing.

Car makers should embrace the crowd or risk making the same mistakes those industries made.

Here's the GM windshield demo:


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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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