I’ve been maintaining for a while that cars will become much smarter than they are now. Artificial intelligence will improve as sensors, predictive analytics, apps, and every other innovation in cars improves, converges, and becomes much more helpful.
One early sign of this is a feature on the 2019 VW Jetta GLI, a speedy 228-horsepower sedan. Using the Car-Net app connected to the vehicle, you can perform some basic functions found in other automaker apps, such as locking the doors remotely.
There’s a handy feature for finding your parking spot, which uses the Parkopedia service. You can locate a parking spot, find out where you parked, or send the parking garage location to the navigation to your car.
Those features have been around awhile, but I liked another AI-driven feature. If you leave the sunroof open and the Jetta senses there is weather in the forecast, it will warn you about the problem. That’s helpful in terms of protecting the car and warning you, through a notification on your phone (iPhone or Android), about a simple (and easily resolvable issue).
I’d prefer if the Jetta also closed the sunroof, but I also understand the telematics to connect to that part of the car are not as advanced quite yet, and at least you know.
However, what’s most impressive to me is that VW is experimenting with ideas like this and it’s a precursor to what we can expect in the near future. AI is certainly not to blame for any slowdowns in pushing features out to new cars.
I had predicted a few years ago that bots like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant would become more conversational, and that has come to fruition. If you ask Alexa to play one song you like, the bot will chime in and ask if you want to hear more songs like that. If you ask for a reminder about a sporting event, bots these days will offer to track that team for you or remind you about other games.
I see similar opportunities with cars. Apart from the sunroof notification, modern cars could easily track far more data that is useful from an AI standpoint, from repair schedules (which are available in some models I’ve tested, most notably the Volvo brand) to nav routes. I’m looking forward to AI being able to watch how and where we drive, and automatically customize the car and the routes based on our preferences and what we normally do.
Beyond that, AI will come into play the most as we move closer to the age of autonomous driving. Every piece of data – the distance you are driving, how close you are to other vehicles, the exact number of cars on the road, the weather at your current location and your destination, plus hundreds of other factors – will all feed the AI engine. Cars will know more than we could possibly ever track as a human, and will adjust features for us and suggest changes.
A future VW Jetta, for example, would never let you leave the sunroof open in the first place or would let you know right away that there’s rain in the forecast. It would know you are going to work and that you normally don’t return to the vehicle until a certain time. It would know when you leave your laptop bag or your phone in the car (some Audi models currently do this today, knowing you have left the phone connected to a USB cable). It could predict behavior based on previous experience and actions, tracking them all in real-time.
In the driver's seat
The only objection to all of this is that it might become too much information -- too many suggestions, too much data. At that point, cars will have to decide which subtle actions to take on our behalf – closing the sunroof after we leave the car so we never even know.
With autonomous cars, the vehicle might adjust itself on the road, change routes, speed up and slow down, or make countless other maneuvers to help us in ways we won’t ever realize.
AI is already powerful enough for this. Automakers have to tread lightly in this area, making sure the bot overlords don’t assume too much control. Safety first. Yet, convenience features like closing a sunroof will help us all adjust to this inevitable future reality.
On The Road is TechRadar's regular look at the futuristic tech in today's hottest cars. John Brandon, a journalist who's been writing about cars for 12 years, puts a new car and its cutting-edge tech through the paces every week. One goal: To find out which new technologies will lead us to fully self-driving cars.