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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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Unwired Vehicles: Mobile Computing Solutions

There once was a time when cars were very simple. There was lots of room under the hood and shade-tree mechanics could keep the cars running quite nicely. A push-button radio occupied a prominent place on the dash. Bigger was better. Gas was cheap and there wasn’t much consideration given to taking care of the environment.

By the mid-70s things began to change. Government regulations – and good old common sense, dictated that we start cleaning up the air. That meant cleaning up vehicle emissions. Attempts to do this by a convoluted combination of mechanical devices that were unreliable over the long term resulted in vehicles that ran poorly. New cars were often prone to stall and generally ran worse that the ones they were bought to replace. Performance took a nose dive. The future of automobiles was not looking as good as the past.

A new approach was needed. On-board computers were introduced and, over time, the results have been no less than absolutely amazing. Vehicles now run better than ever, simultaneously getting better fuel economy, higher performance, greatly improved reliability and lower emissions of pollutants.

Today’s on-board computers continually make minute adjustments to engines, based on inputs of all of the factors that determine and affect their performance. Airbag and other safety systems are controlled by computers. Some cars even have sophisticated (and expensive) computer-controlled suspension systems. However, as amazing as all of these things are, they are more or less unseen by drivers most of the time. What drivers do see, and increasingly use, are things like entertainment systems, navigation systems and sophisticated electronic controls that are intended to simplify vehicle operation. I’d almost say BMW’s iDrive is a good example of that but I think that may have been a little too much too soon. Replacing most of the buttons and dials with one large selector knob and a menu screen left many drivers confused and frustrated. An easy-to-use human interface is a critical, must-have feature of these computerized devices.

  

Clever people at a company named Unwired Vehicles are working on the development of some pretty amazing new computerized devices – and the human interfaces needed to operate them. Imagine having safe access to a full-blown PC, complete with a large touch screen that is tastefully integrated into your car, and voice-enabled and manual interfaces that make it easy to use. I got a chance to experience this in their well-equipped rolling test-bed – a shiny, black, supercharged and customized Hummer.

 

You may have already experienced wireless connectivity to the Internet from your laptop computer at airports and coffee houses, but their Hummer lets you do that on the road! Think of the possibilities: using a real-time Web search to find out things like what movies are playing, when and where; checking a stock online; finding out what the most competitive online vendors are charging for that high tech gizmo you just saw at another store – and then printing the information to take back into the store for bargaining power; listening to your email and dictating replies; video conferencing (for free) with friends and associates around the world; audio entertainment that lets you use voice commands to play by music type and artist; and, of course, full featured GPS navigation.

A multi-directional microphone enables the driver to tell the system exactly what to do, while keeping his eyes on the road.

The little camera mounted by the rear view mirror is used for video conferencing.

  
touchpad, wireless keyboard, memory card reader & USB ports

There is a touchpad convenient to the driver and also an easily removable, wireless keyboard for use by the passengers, or by the driver when the vehicle is safely stopped. After the demonstration I even downloaded the Hummer photos from my digital camera’s memory card into the vehicle’s computer, via a card reader in the glove box. To accommodate many more devices, there are several USB ports in the dash.

 

You don’t need a large vehicle to have all of these goodies. Their next vehicle will be sized at the other end of the automotive spectrum. To find out more, visit their Web site at www.unwiredvehicles.com.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

Copyright © 2006 Jan R. Wagner – #198 AutoMatters

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