MaRS Event Heralds the Advent of Connected Cars, Eventually

The MaRS Discovery District is a technology focused not-for-profit housed in the grand old Heritage Building at the corner of College and University in Toronto.

The new architectural adjunct to the Heritage Building is dubbed Phase II, and i attended the mostly-baked addition’s first event yesterday, “Building the Future of the Connected Car,” co-hosted by BNOTIONS and Tesla. Like MaRS Phase II, the connected car concept shows a lot of promise, but there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out.

BNOTIONS’ own company car, a Tesla Model S Performance 85+, complete with their own vanity plates, had been driven into the vacuous meeting hall on what we were told was “hours-old carpeting.” The high-ceilinged room had exposed pipes and was unheated, on what was a record snow day for Toronto. Workers in hard hats still patrolled the very active construction site, and numerous areas (including the preciously coveted underground link to the subway) were incomplete and roped off. One of the event’s speakers, Lixar IT’s Director of Innovation Justin Moon, was unable to land at the city’s island airport due to inclement weather, but the event organizers soldiered on without him.

Pinch hitting for Moon was Xavier Debane, the VP of Strategy & Growth for Rogers Communications. Through Debane’s speech, it became clear that the connected car concept and MaRS Phase II had a lot in common: both held a lot of promise and had people very excited, but there was still work to be done. In fairness to MaRS, the building’s Phase II construction is expected much sooner than fully-automated self driving cars, which Debane sees as the norm in 20 years, an estimate i found generous, but nonetheless titillating.

Debane revealed that after shelter, car costs represented the second highest expenditure of household income for Canadian families, at 20%. He predicts that it will take five years to reach a tipping point where the majority of cars are connected in some way, but admitted that there is a wide spectrum of connectivity that could be included. His most informative slide profiled different types of car connectivity along a time spectrum, indicating when Rogers believed such technologies would be consumer-ready.

These technologies ran the gamut from in-car wifi and fleet telematics in the short term, to remote maintenance and autonomous driving in The Future. One of the more initially terrifying technologies Debane discussed was usage-based insurance, where the car would report to insurance companies how it was being driven (potentially including data on speeding, rolled stops, erratic steering, and sweet jumps over the hog pen while Roscoe and Cletus are in hot pursuit), so that drivers’ premiums can be adjusted according to their actual driving ability, rather than today’s arbitrary metrics like sex, age, and car make.

The very concept, and the serious privacy concerns it raises, deeply offends the notion of the car as an icon of freedom and individualism. However, as a cyclist and pedestrian who doesn’t own a car, the more i thought about it, the more i warmed to the idea: when i think that the way you handle your one-ton “symbol of freedom” can so easily and thoughtlessly end my life or the lives of those i love, i begin to see cars and the way they’re driven as less a private matter and much more of a communal concern.

One of the attendees asked Debane about collaboration between companies. The man’s very presence at the podium raised the spectre of a connected car duopoly, where the car manufacturer you favour is not supported by your preferred Canadian cell carrier. Indeed, Debane pointed out, early alliances were already forming along operating system lines, with Hyundai announcing a partnership with Apple to run iOS, and Google sewing up deals with Audi, GM, Honda (and curiously, also Hyundai) to outfit the cars with the Android OS.

The discussion brought to my mind fears of Apple cars and Google cars, of Red State cars and Blue State cars, of Coke cars and Pepsi cars. Partisan cars. “Cartisanship,” to coin a hideous portmanteau, which seems  to be all the rage these days.

Another gallery member raised the interesting question of fault: when something goes wrong with a connected car, who takes the blame? Is it the car manufacturer, the OS developer, the software developer, or the cell carrier?  Debane wasn’t yet sure, but brought up the possibility of developing a flight recorder-style “black box” that can tell part of the story and clarify what went wrong.

The second speaker of the day was Andrew D’Souza from Bioym, creators of the Nymi, which we’ve covered extensively here on Techvibes. One attendee asked Andrew how Toronto stacked up to the valley in the area of wearable biometric technology like the Nymi.

“There are more compelling wearable companies [in Toronto] than in the Bay Area,” he said. “Toronto’s a world class city. We should be able to attract talent.”

i had to chuckle, as i glanced over my shoulder at the raging blizzard, and thought of poor Mr. Moon, his plane still circling the island airport waiting to land.

The remainder of the event was an “idea hack” (gross! When did we stop saying “brainstorm”?). Bionym fronted five Nymi wristbands as a prize to the group who could pitch the best connected car concept. My tablemate and i had to leave the event early, but quickly exchanged our ideas. His was an intercom system so that drivers could communicate with each other, and scream obscenities. Mine was a game system for Death Race 2000-style competitions, where the car could analyze the sex, weight and height of the pedestrians you run over and award you points accordingly. My tablemate’s face blanched, and i quickly ducked out of the room.  

i trudged through the snow to catch the subway, when a lady came up the stairs warning everyone that there was a fire on the tracks, and the trains had stopped running in both directions. As i ploughed towards home, i was reminded of Asimov’s short story Nightfall; perhaps Torontonians had simply grown too cold, and had started lighting fires in panicked desperation?

MaRS Phase II, beautifully finished. Connected cars, driving us around autonomously. Toronto, a world class city that can attract the very best talent.

All three are exciting goals.

All three are in various stages of completion.