Monday, August 30, 2010

Changing Paradigms

There's an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson says he prefers a 20 year old Ferrari F40 to their more recent vehicles. Among his reasons is the gap between driver and machine. With older supercars, driver and machine were in direct contact, with driver commands relayed directly to the engine, brakes, wheels, and so forth. But with modern supercars, the driver gives commands to a computer, which translates those commands into actions taken by car. This introduces a layer between person and machine, which (to Jeremy Clarkson, anyway) is less satisfying.

This is not to say that computers aren’t helpful, even necessary, in the modern supercar. The latest generation are so incredibly powerful, driver’s aids such as launch and traction control are necessary just to make them drivable. Not to mention less terrifying for the driver: when harnessing the power of 500+ bhp, there’s a very thin margin between driving on the limit and turfing the car.

Even when we drive ordinary cars, more and more we're talking to a computer that will tell the car what we want the car to do. Which raises the question of whether the driving paradigm that we use - foot-pedal throttle, gear lever shifting, foot braking, steering – has become an anachronism. If we're going to talk to a computer, these mechanisms for interaction are extremely primitive given both the computing power and sophisticated human-computer interfaces we have today. In that light, it comes as no surprise that smartphones are becoming increasingly integrated with cars; perhaps a new paradigm for interacting with our cars lies there.

It's also more than just a simple "command interface." The driver-car dialogue is not a one-way phenomenon, because driving is no longer as simple as driver instructing the car. The automobile can interpret multiple simultaneous commands (e.g., steering and braking) to try to understand what the driver is likely trying to accomplish and implement the right kind of steering with the right kind of braking. The car can also interpret those commands with some degree of situational awareness: things like road conditions, obstacle detection and satnav can enable a computer to interpret why we might be sending a combination of commands, and act accordingly. This makes the act of driving an all together different exercise: we don't control the car, as much as we describe what we want the car to do.

This isn’t an unprecedented shift. Commercial airplanes went through a similar phenomenon, and it changed the nature of what it meant to pilot a commercial airliner. It took several years, but stick and pedals gradually gave rise to fly-by-wire. The Airbus A320 was a clean break from the prior paradigm, making pilots feel more like computer programmers. Boeing still includes a stick in their aircraft, but pilots talk to a computer which talks to the ailerons, engines, landing gear, etc.

All told, we're likely very close to witnessing a shift in what it means to "drive". The way we control a car stems from function more than form. The underlying function is changing, and with it, so must the form.

One thing is for certain: the next generation of drivers will have a far easier time accepting a new paradigm than older generations will have in letting the previous paradigm go.