Finishing Line

In-Car Shopping

By Stefan Budricks

01/01/18

Imagine your customers’ cars telling them when it is time to get a wash. Cars already alert their owners when an oil change is due or that the tires need to be inflated, all of which is handily displayed on the dashboard. It’s not difficult to assume that “Car Wash Needed” could one day join other notifications on the instrument panel.

MIT is taking this facility a step further. Its researchers are developing software that would enable a smartphone to identify any number of needs of any car in which it happens to be present. According to the MIT news office, today’s smartphones are so sensitive, they can detect anomalies without any special connection. Through an app the smartphone, by listening to the car’s “breathing” for example, could detect the beginnings of a snore and determine that the air filter requires replacement.

Joshua Siegel, PhD, one of the research scientists on the project explains that by using machine-learning processes to compare many recordings of sound and vibration from well-tuned cars with similar ones that have a specific problem, accurate diagnoses can be made. The machine-learning systems can pinpoint the most subtle of differences. By detecting these differences, the smartphone can, for example, alert its user to wheel-balance problems, bad spark plugs, bald tires, etc.

While the commercial availability of the app is a year or two away, developments elsewhere already bring potential solutions to the identified problems — along with a host of unrelated features — right to the car’s in-vehicle touchscreen. General Motors has introduced Marketplace, billed as the automotive industry’s first commerce platform for on-demand reservations and purchases of goods and services.

Rolled out in early December, Marketplace allows drivers of certain GM vehicles to order and pay for their coffee on the go. There’s more: drivers can order food, find the closest gas station, make dinner or hotel reservations, and shop for specific GM products and services. All of this can be achieved by simply tapping on the touchscreen. It allows, the GM announcement says, drivers the opportunity to “more safely interact with a growing number of their favorite brands in retail.” More safely than what, the announcement does not say.

I would assume that if you were going to order food, you’d consult a menu, requiring eyes on the screen rather than on the road. Even if you know beforehand what you want, any interaction with that screen requires attention diverted from driving. Several months back, I found myself on a hot seat, literally. Doing 70 miles an hour on the freeway, I found that my rental car’s seat heater was in operation. Trying to navigate, while driving, through the various on-screen menus in an attempt to switch off the heater proved not only fruitless but also dangerous. To get this little task done, I had to pull off the freeway and park.

In addition to inclusion in new cars and trucks, GM plans on adding Marketplace to millions of existing 2017 and 2018 model-year vehicles, with first accessible brands including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wingstop, TGI Fridays, Shell, ExxonMobil, Priceline.com, Applebee’s, and IHOP.

The thought of offering customers the opportunity to find a car wash, select a wash package, and pay for it from the comfort of the driver’s seat while on the go is an intriguing one. The level of distraction, however, should give us pause. You have to wonder if consumers should always get what consumers want.



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