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Opinion: Smart cars offer many dreamy benefits, but what are the risks?

When General Motors offered the first radio as a car option it was game-on for the accessories race in the automotive world. With the innovation in low-cost technologies, our cars are becoming a playground. Some of these toys are useful, but it seems most are for marketing. The car with the most toys wins?

As a designer, I recognise that there is a lot of consumer psychology in car design. Focus groups focus on selling. A swoosh here, a shiny button there, a design element can close the deal faster than any sales woman. We have a spectrum of cars, colours and accessories to choose from. The psychology of the car has always interested me. When I was a teen, all I wanted was a Porsche to race around in. As a Homo Evolutis, I want a "Porsche"-free world. What happened? I guess my psychology evolved. Do we need these?

Cars are a culture. The psychology of cars is powerful and can become an obsession, as can many products. In the book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, we can see how cars can be a dysfunctional cultural psychological fitness signal. The base of car psychology triangle starts at the basic human need for a car as an essential tool of modern life, the top of the triangle has little to do with its base, but it's much prettier.

Yes, tools are important for humans, but since when do we choose products on their utilitarian purpose? Do people buy a luxury watch to tell time? Do people buy the latest and greatest smartphone to make phone calls? Does a Church Minister fly a $65,000,000 Gulfstream jet to streamline holy deliverance? Do those directly rewarded by Jesus win the survival of the fittest race? 

Consumption is a behaviour, but it is also an essential reality for our survival, over-consumption isn't. When consumption only becomes fitness signalling, how smart is our cultural behaviour? Will consuming smarter be the new fitness signal? Can green culture become the new sexy? Will green signals match green realities? 

Consumer behaviours aside, smart cars can deliver some safety features. Driverless cars are also a form of smart car. This has been the drivers fantasy since the 1950's, a surrogate for our failed Jetson's-reality? How smart are driverless cars? Formula E (Electric Car) Series will feature a race of F1 cars in "driverless mode". Can artificial intelligence outperform a human driver on a course? Yes, eventually. Do we need this? Sometimes.

The transport industry would love to transition to driverless transport trucks. Taxi companies are interested in driverless fleets. The modern family can car off on vacation while enjoying a constructive game of scrabble. The smart revolution has some strong value propositions to make. Corporations want to replace the driver to reduce operational cost. Optimizing fuel use will minimize energy consumption.

What are the risks? In my 2010 blog, Smart Cars?, I discussed some of the risks of modern car technology. There are risks. Failure of the car's computer while smart-driving. The other risk is the car's computer getting hacked. The first risk seems smaller than the second. Recently the Canadian Armed Forces tendered a contract to hack their military truck design. They will pay you ~$620,000 to hack and hook them up. Will terrorists apply for the job? I can't, design on such toys violates my "green code of ethics"

With the knowledge that many security systems operate on weak security electronics is a concern, and not just smart cars. We see our security institutions face cyber attacks, etc. The electromechanical controls systems on Iranian nuclear equipment contained a virus. A military expert at NSA could turn it off, for example. The NSA also backdoored encryption, the American Mathematical Society approached infinite phasedness*

Smart cars have risks. If 9/11 was a lesson, the idea of a smart car being hacked and turned into a weapon sends Chivers down my spine. Will Canada test the security and integrity of these products before we let them fill our roads? 

Is there a safe design balance of the best safety and green features without the toys and security risks? Advice for Marc Garneau and Ralph Goodale - Keep it simple silly.


* - Please remember to laugh at the math jokes too!