The Wiki Man

Smart cars

24 October 2013

2:00 PM

24 October 2013

2:00 PM

Someone in New York told me this story. I admit that I didn’t believe it when I first heard it. But a little online research seems to confirm that it is true.

It concerns a group of people who had bought early versions of the Tesla Model S, a $90,000 high-performance electric car much loved by Silicon Valley’s rich set. The earlier versions of these cars behaved slightly differently from a standard petrol vehicle. In particular there was no ‘creep’. For the benefit of European readers irrationally wedded to the stick shift, I should explain that ‘creep’ is a feature of almost all cars with automatic transmission. It means that when you engage ‘drive’ or ‘reverse’, the car moves slowly ahead or backwards even when there is no pressure applied to the accelerator pedal. The Tesla did not do this: it remained stationary until the accelerator pedal was pressed.

Creep did not originate as a deliberate design feature. It is a by-product of the way torque converters behave when a conventional engine is idling. But most automatic drivers like it. When manoeuvring in tight spaces or when inching forward in stop-go traffic (what Londoners call ‘motoring’), it is safer and easier to keep your right foot poised over the brake rather than having to switch repeatedly between two pedals.

So a group of Tesla drivers met the car’s designers and told them that they wanted the Tesla to creep. And you might assume, as I did, that these suggestions would be either ignored by the company or else ‘taken on board’ for possible incorporation into the new version of the Tesla S to be released ‘some time in 2016’.

Instead what happened was this. The car’s designers asked for a few minutes to tap at a computer. They then turned back to the owners and said ‘All done. We’ve written the code, and we can send it to your current vehicle as an over-the-air firmware upgrade in the next few weeks. You’ll have a choice. If you want your car to creep, just go to the control panel and turn the new feature on. If you don’t, just do nothing at all.’

This then is an interesting glimpse of the future. Those of us with smartphones are already familiar with our handsets being upgraded remotely. What we have yet to see is what is possible when that combination of software and connectivity extends to things we had always thought of as being physical. Ford is already working on a technology which allows your car to talk to traffic lights; your vehicle will automatically slow to avoid reaching a junction when the lights are on red.

Hardware improvements are costly, slow and irrevocable. Software improvements are quick, inexpensive and flexible. Yet governments seem fixated with hardware. Next week, at the Spectator debate on HS2, I plan to reveal how a few lines of code could reduce the duration of the rail journey from London to Manchester by over 25 minutes — overnight and for a cost of about £30,000.

I don’t understand why Ed Miliband has such a vendetta against Britain’s energy companies: compared to mobile phone networks they seem a paragon of reasonableness. If the mobile phone companies ran the energy sector, 1) every member of my family would need to pay a separate electricity bill; 2) you would need to take out a new contract every two years, for which you would be given a new washing machine whether you wanted it or not; 3) once or twice a year you would ring up and ask why your monthly bill was £100 higher than normal. You would then be told, ‘Ah, Mr Sutherland, you used some electricity while you were abroad.’

HS2_trainNigel Farage, Matthew Parris, Rory Sutherland and Cheryl Gillan  will debate whether the government should ‘Stop HS2!‘ on 31 October 2013 in Westminster. Click here to book tickets.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments