The Most Intelligent Things in Transportation

Illustration by Radio  

Driving has never just been about getting from one place to the next. Which leaves quite a bit to contemplate when traveling from point A to point B: Do I have enough gas? Why is the check-engine light on? Was that a cop? Drivers can get so preoccupied with the little things that the most important aspect—arriving safely—becomes an afterthought.

Luckily, smart, connected technologies are shifting those burdens off of the driver. Now more than ever, drivers are rolling along with fewer worries about any problems that might crop up along the way. Today’s smart breakthroughs in mapping, fuel consumption, connectivity, and other areas are paving the way for a truly intelligent road trip tomorrow.

Flex’s resident car expert, Kent Helfrich, VP and CTO of Flex Automotive, steers us through some of these advancements—currently available or in development—to give a sense of how our vehicles are changing.

A Diagnostic Dongle

The check-engine light doesn’t have to be a mystery. Car adapters from a variety of companies can plug directly into the standard diagnostics port of any vehicle manufactured after 1996 and explain problems that may arise during your drive via a partner app. Some of these dongles can even track your car’s fuel efficiency and warn when you may be hurting your miles-per-gallon, such as when you brake or accelerate too hard.

Says Helfrich: “From an intelligence perspective, this is translating to smarter driving decisions that are going to decrease fuel consumption and increase the lifespan of your vehicle. One last barrier to fully overcome is the security aspect—these types of products have to be totally secure to ensure the safety of the driver and passengers.”

An Anti-Collision Force Field

Through a combination of radar, lasers, sensors, and cameras, which are available on an increasing number of vehicle models, a collision avoidance system makes intelligent decisions based on the environment surrounding the car. When the system detects an imminent crash, it applies the brakes to avoid or lessen impact.

“How we generate and react to information within the vehicle is changing very quickly. Much of this information will come from sensors that are installed on the vehicle to control things like automated emergency braking,” says Helfrich.


All of our future big changes—the fundamentals of how we get from here to there safely, efficiently, and cleanly—will be enabled by combining intelligent new technologies like these, says Helfrich.




A Socially Driven Map

While Waze has been around for several years now, drivers continue to rely on the constantly updating traffic, road-condition, and emergency-alert notification system. Fellow road-faring “Wazers” crowdsource data to ensure users are all traveling the most optimal routes.

“Tailored and real-time updated maps like Waze are more intelligent today than they were, say, five years ago,” says Helfrich. “That is bar none the most important breakthrough for driving efficiency that I’ve seen.”

An Intuitive, Interactive Screen

According to Helfrich, the center console as you know it is already changing. High-tech, responsive control-panel screens allow drivers to manage their energy-usage setting, high-definition media playback, automatic climate control, and more.

“[The dashboard center stack] hasn’t changed much since 1950,” he says. “If you look at 1950s cars onwards, you’ll find a radio, air conditioner, and maybe an ash tray. But now displays on the dashboard are going to be more and more critical to the function of the car. This is going to be one of the most important spaces for intelligent vehicles moving forward.”



An Always-On Connectivity Box

As more and more intelligent and semi-autonomous cars fill the roads, Helfrich suggests vehicle-to-vehicle communication will be key to safe driving. That’s why Flex is working with several partners on something it calls “the connectivity box,” a small gateway device that houses Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular communications. The idea is to connect your ride to other cars and to the surrounding environment. Serving as an all-in-one mobile hot spot, data center, and emergency dispatcher, the box can be a bridge to the people and services drivers need most when on the road.

Helfrich is optimistic about what this kind of technology means for the connected era. “It’s really connecting all of the threads that are the big change agents in our lives right now. All of us are carrying multiple devices and information. And the car is generating its own information. It’s like the Tower of Babel: All of the information is being spoken simultaneously in different languages, or networks, in this case, but this box is connecting the dots. That’s what Flex does so effectively; because we have to read across all of these industries, we’re kind of like that same box. And that’s going to be one of the major points of integration with the vehicle for its entire life.”