Of Singularities and Updating Cars

This article from Automotive News – “Why a new phone Trumps GM’s $200 map” is an interesting article and certainly worth reading.  Summarized it is this:

  1. GM created some very poorly designed in-dash GPS units that people sometimes paid substantial amounts of money to add to their cars.
  2. GM charges $200 for a map update to these poorly designed in-dash GPS units.
  3. The author of an automotive press company would rather buy the next iPhone than pay $200 for the map update for his car.  In fact, the author doesn’t use this expensive in-dash unit and pulls out his cell phone to look up locations.

The author, Nick Bunkley also points out, “The auto industry is still struggling with how to keep up with the rapid advances in technology that can make parts of a 3-year-old car obsolete.”
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This was not the case 10 years ago.  It is evidence for the technological singularity.  One of The Pirate King of Cars (TPKoC’s) favorite science fiction authors, Vernor Vinge, introduced him to the concept of the singularity.  Conceptually humanity’s technological progress is progressing on a exponential rate.

Once in TPKoC’s science fiction reading history had the philosophy that if you read a science fiction book – and the advanced technology of a alien civilization wasn’t applied evenly, then the author had done something wrong.

Not so, apparently.  As humanity’s technology progress, er, progresses it does it in fits and starts.  Some industries advance by leaps and bounds and others lie dormant for decades.  Cell phones have gone from vocal communication devices to small, versatile and fully functional computers.

Three years from now will the auto industry be complaining that it cannot keep updating their cars to keep up with technological changes that come every three months?

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Over twenty years ago TPKoC owned a 1992 Honda Civic 4-door LX 5-spd manual.  No matter how poorly TPKoC drove, that car got 40 mpg.  Long drives to Florida and back to New Jersey would yield 45 mpg!

Sadly, eventually the car began to fail and it was replaced by another car after 10 years and 222,000 miles.  But is that the way it should be?

TPKoC likes to build his own computers.  An incredible thing happens when you build your own computers.  Has your computer aged?  Change out the motherboard, processor and memory and it becomes a new computer!  Keep the hard drive, disk drives, case, memory and display!

What if we could do that with cars?  What if, as my Civic aged, there was a higher performance (in mpg and hp) engine that was designed to fit the engine bay?  In fact all cars of a similar size had the same engine mount points?  You could have a Honda with a Ford engine (eh, not sure why you would do that, but let’s go with it…)  Instead of my Civic (and then my Accord) lasting for 10 years and then being replaced, they could last until the next advances involved getting a new chassis?

As car prices escalate like they are on a path to their own singularity how will the average mortal human get a new vehicle when their vehicle is no longer maintainable?  This could be the solution.

The automotive industry will also need to adopt processes similar to cell phones and software developers.  Got an update?  No problem, you can do it yourself for free.  In fact it is far more efficient for the automotive industry to make more and more changes do-able by the average car owner than maintain a vast network of dealerships.  Expose how the internal computer interfaces work and customized versions of these systems could be made.  It is possible that a few changes to how the injector system works in some later patch could gain the end user/car owner a few more mpg!

Adapting to change is often hardest in that first step.  Once the automotive industry starts to adapt to constant and accelerating change it will not be one of the industries where some technologies have lagged while the world of cell phones has past them by…