cars

On November 29, 1991, you couldn’t see a thing. The strip of highway along California’s Interstate 5 was inundated with motorists traveling up and down California’s middle land between the state’s two most bustling hubs – the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area – as people are wont to do the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The San Joaquin Valley is prime farmland for raising crops and cattle – a fact easily learned by the nostrils once you enter Coalinga, a city along the highway. But that year, because of draught conditions, many farmers didn’t plant their fields, so dry dirt began to build up along the interstate. As 40-mile-per-hour winds gusted, a dust storm blinded motorists. The result was a 104-car pileup, with 17 people dead and 150 seriously injured.

The aftermath was Hollywood apocalyptic: Burning cars and smashed trucks smoldering through a filter of dust, while survivors climbed out of cars, bloody and caked with dirt.

The promise is that twenty years from now, mass adoption of self-driving cars might have prevented a tragedy like this. Optimists say if we’re lucky, we may be seeing these cars on the road as soon as next decade. But we’ll need some big jumps up in technology for the vision to be as good as futurists hope. As things are now, even if we all had a self-driving car, they probably wouldn’t have done a thing to prevent the horrendous pileup on I-5, one of the worst in the country’s recent history. Lidar technology – integral to the self-driving car’s very functionality, essentially serving as the car’s eyes – is right now too vulnerable to the forces of nature: snow, dust, even glaring sunlight.

Scientists are working to better that technology and bring us into the driverless and hopefully motor fatality-free future. That’s not insignificant: There were over 32,000 traffic deaths in the United States in 2011, and that’s the lowest count in over 60 years. There are two big developments in cars that the average consumer — and reporters like me — are dying to see even if they seem too good to be possible: Sleeping in the driver’s seat and not crashing.

When a promise like that is dangled in front of you for the not-to-terribly-distant future, it’s hard to get excited about the kind of news and developments we’re getting in the meantime. Every other day, we hear another announcement about some piece of technology integrating with cars: social networks integrating with cars, voice activated music controls, and the like.

But the self-driving car is such a seminal, science-fictionesque milestone that mere mortal software integrations seem boring by comparison. It all feels comparatively lackluster.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a rant about how boring technology has become. Instead, I wonder if the narrative around self-driving cars actually hurts companies trying to develop car solutions now. Most new products have a brief honeymoon period where they can bask in mystique and novelty. But the promise of a self-driving car squashes that because, well, what’s more novel than a self-driving car?

It may be a while before the self-driving car is mainstream, but mainstream coverage is clearly already here. In addition to PandoDaily, the cars have been highlighted in a major story in Fortune Magazine, the New York Times, the Guardian and several other outlets. These publications regularly write about cool, out-there scientific things, but there’s something different about this coverage. For example, a story isn’t about how the technology simply exists, but that California is the latest state to legalize testing. These aren’t futurists spouting on about the horizon. There is no hypothetical air to the tone of these self-driving car stories. The story is: It’s happening.

While the gloss of the self-driving car narrative isn’t helping the companies trying to innovate in the space now, the current state of the in-car experience isn’t very good either. Nest CEO Tony Fadell once told me that in-car electronics are “abysmal,” and that the car needs to have a better relationship with the smart phone. Yes, Peyton Manning can tell his dashboard to call his dad, and Blake Griffin can tell the UVO in his Kia Optima to play “This is How We Do it,” but that technology has been around a while. There’s not much today that breaks the mold.

Companies certainly are trying. Just yesterday, Life360, a mobile network for families, announced a partnership with BMW that will allow the company to integrate some of its services into cars’ dashboards. Life360 aims to keep families connected and safe, with features like allowing a child to check in with his or her parents, or pushing crime alerts. The car integration will let a user tap on a family member’s avatar on a dashboard and automatically route the car to that person. (It also finds a parking spot next to him or her.)

And earlier this week, the navigation company TomTom announced that it would bake its mapping software into the Uconnect Radio Nav system in Fiats, and that it would power onboard traffic blotters for Toyota and Mercedes-Benz. Siri Eyes Free, the auto-ready version of Apple’s virtual assistant, pops into the news every now and again to announce a new car manufacturing partner.

These things are all cool, but they serve as constant reminders that they are essentially placeholders. For example, the Life360 integration is actually very helpful, but how much cooler would it be if the car actually drove itself to that person and parked on its own? The beauty of putting Siri in a car is that voice commands mean fewer distractions while driving. But with a car that drives itself, that use case fizzles away.

There are some things to get excited about. BMW, Audi and Ford have all unveiled self-parallel parking assistants. Other manufacturers will soon have cars with options that use sensors to keep you from straying from your lane. Tesla, along with its dashboard API, is promising, even though it has a limitations for now – regardless of any New York Times reporting controversy.

I’m hard-pressed to think of another time this something-better-comes-along phenomenon has occurred in this way. Nobody thumbed their noses at VHS because they knew DVDs would appear decades later. There was, however, a land-grab attempt by Sony’s Betamax, though tech lore says the porn industry decided that battle. Laserdisc never took off, not because of the looming threat of DVDs, but because it was an expensive, terrible format. People only started adopting the iPod after realizing how much better it was than any other MP3 player, and not the other way around.

The only analogy that bears any type of resemblance – though on a vastly smaller scale – would be a customer deciding against buying the current model of a phone because she is holding out for the next model, or, decades ago, holding out for a computer with more processing power. But that’s usually about incremental improvement.

The anticipation in the kind of step function in auto experience we’re talking about is something we haven’t seen before. It’s only been recently, because of Moore’s Law and the rapid clip at which tech advances, that we can have an accurate enough crystal ball to foresee with some degree of accuracy, when these major milestones will take place.

But to get there, we need to support the present. Mass adoption of self-driving cars are many, many years off, and it’s not like we can stop innovating in the meantime.

These companies — like Life360 or even Apple — needed to enter the connected car space at some point, and what better time is now? They will be the ones retooling our concept of the interior of a vehicle. And the more they are rewarded in hype, press and sales– the more the market will become appealing to capitalists and innovators.

Of course, the mind will always wonder. Self-driving cars aren’t even here yet, and already I’m wondering about flying cars – though we’ve been doing that in pop culture since the 1960s. Space travel is already getting more serious treatment from the press, thanks largely to SpaceX.

I asked Shasta Ventures partner Rob Coneybeer, who had looked into backing self-driving cars, about flying cars. He let out a hefty laugh. While he’s bullish on the self-driving car, he doesn’t think we’ll have a flying car in our lifetime, citing the physics of it being too difficult right now.

Perhaps, Elon Musk will have something to say about that.

[Image courtesy Incase.]