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A Contrarian View by Doug Stokes
(Sidebar/follow-up added 11.27.16)
10.17.2016 … Somewhere along the line the day before yesterday at the LA Auto Show, just after a nice Motor Press Guild-hosted breakfast, I narrowly escaped falling headfirst down a very deep and (this one anyway) brightly-lit, raucously sound tracked, rabbit hole.
Actually, technically, I was at AutoMobility LA (sometime all caps, sometimes upper case A and M as above). Press materials called it “a merger of the Los Angeles Auto Show’s Press and Trade Days and its award-winning Connected Car Expo”.
I was there ostensibly to cover the Auto Show’s keynote address to the assembled troops be delivered by Mark Fields, President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company. I was there.
Mister Fields opened his remarks indicating how very proud that he was to be here at what he explained was the “first ever” auto show that was, “not just about cars.” It was about mobility. “Mobility”, in this case, is the new safe word for a whole host of automation mechanisms wherein the basic idea of driving an automobile is redefined, reassessed, and reimagined (with what seemed to me little concern for the actual task).
In the face of some stats about how much time we all spend in our cars (it took me an hour and 15 minutes from Duarte to downtown at 6:15 in the morning) Mister Fields took the opportunity to bravely indicate that those numbers are going up and that Ford Motor Company plans to be there optimizing cars and that they were (company-wide we might expect) very excited about the future. At that point I would confess that I was as well.
Mister Fields went on to talk about working together with community planners and Ford’s visionary public-private interactions that would, “improve people’s lives in ways that we’re just beginning to understand.”
There was no elaboration at that point, I supposed that everyone else in the packed tent (yes, this was an authentic “tent meeting” my friends) already knew how that would work. He went on to indicate that his company was gathering, “the best ideas from around the World”, presumably for the above purposes, I would think.
As a keynote address at a (major*) auto show, I had expected a lot more than innocuous pastel-toned examples of how the Ford Motor Company was very (very) pleased to be part of the national mobility movement. I even half-expected some sort of idea of what his company basically thought of the recent election, but mobility was the word.
11/30/16 CORRECTION … (Well, really more of an addition …) Quite apparently the Detroit Free-Press was listening to Mister Fields’ speech much more closely than I was because, as they reported, he actually did make reference to the incoming administration on Tuesday last. In referring to a proposed 35% tariff on cars made in Mexico that President-elect Trump had talked about establishing during the presidential campaign Fields said, “A tariff like that would be imposed on the entire auto sector, and that could have a huge impact on the U.S. economy.” I missed that line completely and apologize to Mister Fields for doing so. – Doug Stokes, Editor
The form was there, but, for me personally, the substance was a cloud seen through a telescope, its lens covered by wax paper. Mobility began a long time ago; it’s not a recent discovery or invention in my book. Overly loud techno music, giant TV screens and hip-poised “presenters” in dark tones of tight-fitting clothing with those cool headsets all pulled the “connectivity” chain with great zeal thus ringing an unseen bell to extoll their personel excitement about cars that are smart beyond all understanding and that will do amazing things and, in their own time, and their own way, will heal the future.
Other presenters made similar claims, touting VR, car-sharing, and “exploring how to achieve a seamless experience in the fully-connected automotive future.” When one of them talked about flying cars (excuse me, “flight-enabled vehicles”) I thought that the day’s reading was literally torn from the pages of the August 1948 edition of Popular Mechanics.
Interfaces, AI (“the new word in automotive”) tech-breakthroughs of all sorts, rolled on relentlessly with nary a word about actual cars in general, tires, suspension systems, handling, styling, horsepower, usefulness, performance and all those other parameters that what we think are what we think about when we think about cars.
I secretly kept expecting for that well-muscled young woman in the shorts and tank top to run down the main aisle and fling that hammer into the giant screen, but she was nowhere to be seen on Tuesday.
One of them (honestly) talked about, “the importance of putting the car owner at the center of the auto marketing strategy.” (Duh.) I closed my eyes and was (for a moment) at an EST meeting with bathroom breaks …
In my experience cars have been pretty damn well connected for a while now, GM’s OnStar for one. There’s some usable, workable connectivity at work there that does not take an engineering degree (or a teenager) to operate it, in fact it was “intuitive” before that word got moved up to near-sainthood, and just the other day in LA the cops used it to immobilize a stolen car. Easy-peasy, one and done.
For me whole connectivity cabal on Tuesday in downtown seemed like a giant sweat lodge where the future did not depend on automobiles to be interesting, likeable, loveable, even cool personal expressions, but objects that have as little to do with the process of actual driving as possible.
Between speakers I went out into the display area almost expecting the coffee urns to have been replaced with giant Kool-Aid dispensers.
I’m sorry peeps, but the AutoMobility part was not my idea of auto show, it was far too overreaching with (for me) ominous “Tech” advances that make cars work better, faster, safer and we’ve been “connecting” with our cars for a lot of time now. Big Data.
Of course there will be advances, I’m perpetually looking forward to better, more reliable, less expensive, cooler cars, but right now, at the 2017 LA Auto Show, I’m going to look under the hood, feel those leather seats, check out those wonderful lists of features and add-ons and make damn sure that the blue tooth will connect with my phone model.
I fully expect to make a personal, visceral “connection” with a good half a dozen cars at the show. It’ll be about my personal mobility, and my love of driving and the whole deal about being in control of a motor vehicle. When I don’t want to actually drive, I know who to call, or where to hop on the Metro.
AutoMobility lead-off the LA Auto Show and dominated the first of the four press days that put the show in front of the various levels of media and media-adjacent types like me. I only sat through a couple-three hours of those four days. It was plenty. In my own way I guess that I chose not to take off my shoes and run over the fire pit. I think that I would have fried my feet if I did.
Yeah, I’m a Luddite by some standards, I don’t feel an acute need to have my car connected (except to the road) at all times, in fact, sometimes I don’t even take my cell phone along with me when I drive somewhere.(!) And feel only minimally guilty about it.
POSTSCRIPT: And, early this morning, one full day removed from my day at the show, trying to finish this report without having too very many people in the business think that I was a crybaby about the wonderful future that had been laid out before us. I looked at the cool ceramic coffee cup I’d brought home on Tuesday from the Convention Center. It read AUTOMOBILITY of course. Maybe it was the cold light of morning, maybe the black coffee, but the AUTO part of the word being rendered in the very lightest of type and the MOBILITY part of the word there in bold block sort of said what I’ve been scratching at for (let me check) 1482 words now. Your turn now. -DS
*behind Detroit, New York, and Chicago (but ahead of San Francisco and Miami).
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WELCOME (once more) TO THE MONKEY HOUSE
… With Only Mild Apologies to Curt Vonnegut
Saturday, 11/26/16: More than a week after the Los Angeles Auto Show “opened” with three (or was it four?) of AutoMobility … and the hits just keep on coming (at least in the LA Times).
In today’s episode we find auto executives “focusing” on the ever-popular texting-while-driving problem. (A bad thing.)
As it turns out, Mark Fields (the President/CEO of the Ford Motor Company) himself has been personally monitoring the situation. “I do a little survey, when I’m driving, where I look at the other drivers,” Fields told Times reporter Charles Fleming. “It is amazing to see what people do in their cars.”
Amazing things are always amazing. It’s just the idea that, with all of the BIG DATA that big companies like Ford has about everyone and everything that people do, anyone is able to be even the least bit amazed at much of any anymore.
… And Chevrolet’s top guy, Alan Batey, was even more adamant (although he sounded slightly less amazed). “Its texting,” he’s quoted, “We are on the road to autonomous, and our vehicles are supplying a lot of safety features. But texting and driving is a very bad habit.” Ok, good, it seems we’ve heard that before somewhere, so, on the “amazing” scale this one gets a low number.
The Chevy boss then went for some reassuring and a bit of kicked back (to the consumer) blame with the revelation that, “Computers and machines are just more accurate than humans.” Fleming finishes Batey’s paragraph with, “… although he said that drivers themselves ultimately bear the responsibility for safe driving.”
Ok, sure, right.
In an allied article about “Self-driving cars biggest hurdle…” directly adjacent to the above startling news, one line jumps off the page: “The real issue,” he said, “Is humans.” That was the chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA, Dietmar Exler chiming in last week the night before the show.
Part of that article talked about how courteous Mercedes-Benz* autonomous vehicles will be when they are finally on the road in the fact that they will yield to aggressive human drivers like if they were “cut in on” in traffic.
It postulated that such driverless cars could be programmed to be more aggressive, but Exler himself hosed that particular idea saying that he doubted that the regulators would allow it.
Which triggered this:
WAY OFF THE SUBJECT (not really): The idea of being able to tune your daily driver automaton vehicle for various states of aggression sounds good to me.
It actually sounds like those cool ride and engine tune buttons and switches found in a number of high-zoot automobiles right now.
Let’s see, do I want the “Milquetoast” (Oh … Whatever) setting or the “Full Tilt Boogie/Code 4” (TV Car Chase) mode or something in between, like my go-to all-around favorite: “Look Ma, No Hands” (Holy Stuf Batboy)? Squeaking in and out of traffic like a maniac on a mission (or an amusement park thrill ride), or a nice sedate trot, keeping pace, staying in line like ponies on a carousel … Hey, your choice.
… But I digress. The whole exercise seems to me to be simply set up to sell more cars … this is still America and selling more is the deal here. When I left the AutoMobility part of the LA Auto Show a week or so ago, I got on the 110 freeway heading North, it was about 2PM, traffic was “LA” (you know what I mean). But … then I noticed it … there were, here and there a few places that, with the proper measuring and timing (something that we’re surely not going to leave up to humans at this juncture) more vehicles could easily be fitted into the 20 MPH quagmire heading (in my case) North towards Pasadena.
That’s it! The best reason for automated cars (along with beer delivery semis) is that, with computerized space allotment, we’ll be able to (first BUY) and then scientifically squeeze-in, hundreds (maybe thousands) of more vehicles onto the existing infrastructure. Oh happy day.
It will then be the day when we’ll all have the time and the freedom to do some really amazing things in our cars, things that might even amaze some automotive executives. I know that I plan to be amazed. -DS
*SAFETY SIDEPAN (Hello?): In addition to building some of the safest (handling and structure-wise) vehicles on the road today, Mercedes also quietly offers ear protection with the unlikely moniker of “Pink Noise” (and no it’s not the name of an English cover band … although …). It’s “PRE-SAFE®, Mercedes’ latest safety addition that’s specifically designed for crashing your Mercedes E-Class. And you really CAN make this stuff, but its much more fun like this (right from the M-B site).
In their own words: “… it works by triggering a protective physical reflex in the milliseconds prior to a collision. And so for the first time the vehicle occupants themselves become an integral part of safety technology … It kicks in before the collision occurs, preparing the vehicle and its occupants. PRE-SAFE is therefore one of our systems that is based on what actually happens in real-life accidents and helps to save people’s lives. The system is the first to harness a natural reflex to condition the ear – when a collision is imminent – for the loud noise that is anticipated from the impact. If an impending collision is detected that would be expected to produce a loud crash, the vehicle’s sound system plays a short interference signal. This causes the stapedius muscle in the ears to contract, which for a split second changes the link between the eardrum and the inner ear and so better protects it against high acoustic pressures. Most importantly, the reflex reduces the damage to hearing.”
The sound that’s emitted is called “Pink Noise” and is, as we are about to hear more about it from M-B is something of a modern tech-miricle: hearing protection from the loud, possibly unnerving, sounds generated by a collision, here you go, again … back to M-B’s words:
“…That may sound simple enough, but as is so often the case with advanced technology, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. ‘People have long been aware of the stapedius reflex and its protective effect,’ says Wilfried Bullinger, who works in Mercedes-Benz Cars development on innovative occupant protection systems. “To make sure you trigger the reflex, however, you normally need high sound pressures, typically around 100 decibels. This would be like listening to a trumpet playing from around one metre away. But this volume would definitely be too much for use in a car.” Then the experts discovered a way of tricking the body.”
OK you got this far … keep reading … and understand that in any really bad crash the very sharpest, very loudest noise that one is going to hear is an airbag (or two) deployment instigated by an explosive charge that releases and inflates the device in the fleeting millisecond between a hard impact and the driver and/or passengers striking surfaces that are protected by the device.
“‘Pink sound’ on all frequencies: The triggering of the stapedius reflex is contingent not only on how loud the noise is, but also on the spectral composition of the signal that is used. An individual tone carries the required energy only on a single frequency, meaning that this frequency has to be transmitted to the ear at a very high volume. However, if this energy is spread out across as many tones, i.e. frequencies, as possible, it can be transmitted at a much lower volume.
A frequency spectrum known in physics as pink noise is ideally suited for this purpose. It sounds like a bit like diffuse traffic noise, the breaking of waves or a waterfall. “This finding was the breakthrough,” says Bullinger. ‘100 decibels was too much. But around 80 decibels, as now deployed by PRE-SAFE Sound®, was perfect. This is equivalent to the level of noise at the side of a busy road.’ At the end of 2011 human trials of the pink noise method proved that the concept worked – a major milestone had been reached.”
Assuring and, I might add AMAZING words … indeed. (No comment on the name Bullinger.) -DS