Monthly Archives: May 2017

Microsoft to Put Voice-Activation Software in Hyundai

Microsoft is expected to announce Tuesday in Seoul, South Korea, that it will develop a version of its Microsoft Auto software for the Hyundai Kia Automotive Group, the world’s fifth-largest automaker.

Microsoft already has a deal with the Ford Motor Company for its Sync system, which uses voice activation technology to operate cellphones and play digital music.

With both Ford and Hyundai as customers, Microsoft’s software could potentially be put into more than eight million vehicles worldwide each year. Its competitors include OnStar from General Motors, Johnson Controls and QNX Software Systems from Harman International.

Systems based on Microsoft Auto are available in Fiat Group vehicles in Europe and South America, as well as in 12 Ford models in North America.

Microsoft Auto will first appear in Hyundai vehicles in North America in 2010, said Martin Thall, general manager of Microsoft’s automotive business unit. Subsequent versions will give drivers voice control over navigation systems and video entertainment, in addition to cellphones and digital music players.

The Hyundai deal suggests that Microsoft may be achieving the critical mass it needs to encourage other companies to create links to its auto software, in much the same way that third parties create software applications to run on Windows-based PCs.

With millions of potential users, G.P.S. navigation device makers like TomTom and Garmin may start developing software for their products specifically for Ford and Hyundai.

“Microsoft is certainly raising their level of involvement and their competitiveness in the automotive industry,” said Phil Magney, an analyst at the Telematics Research Group. “It makes it one of the top operating systems that automakers must consider in developing their ‘infotainment’ systems.”

Details of the Hyundai deal were not available Monday. But Mr. Magney noted that revenue from the automotive systems was minuscule compared with other areas of Microsoft’s business.

So the goal of becoming the software standard for cars is largely strategic, creating new ways to align the company’s various products. One possible example would be using its online mapping and traffic prediction software, called Clearflow, in future versions of Microsoft Auto.

Microsoft Auto has been exclusive to Ford in North America, but that agreement ceases at the end of the year.

“But we still have plans for future versions with Ford” of the Sync system, Mr. Thall said. “It’s an ongoing relationship.”

It also brings the company full circle. Before Microsoft was founded, one of Bill Gates’s early endeavors was Traf-O-Data, a company that computerized traffic counters in the early ’70s.

GT-R Can’t Hide Its Horses

IT seems as though the only time you hear about car companies fudging horsepower numbers, it’s when they’re busted advertising more beans than are actually present in the under-hood burrito. Mazda got in trouble for exaggerating the 2001 Miata’s power output. Ford had to recall the 1999 SVT Mustang Cobra when owners realized its motor fell about 20 horsepower short of its official numbers.

I have a theory on where all those phantom ponies went: They’re under the hood of the new Nissan GT-R.

Like those other cars, the GT-R’s stated power — 480 horsepower — is a long way from reality. But in the case of the Nissan, the car seems to have more power than they’re letting on. The question is, how much more?

Thanks to the principle of substitution, we can look at several aspects of the GT-R’s performance and deduce roughly what kind of firepower would be required to accomplish such feats.

The Nissan GT-R laps Germany’s N?rgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes 29 seconds. For reference, the Corvette Z06, which has 505 horsepower and weighs a whopping 700 pounds less than the GT-R, is 13 seconds slower, with a time of 7 minutes 42 seconds.

A clearer picture emerges at the drag strip. Basically, your quarter-mile time is influenced by a host of factors, most importantly the success of your launch off the line. But trap speed — the speed at which you finish the quarter-mile — is closely tied to horsepower and a car’s power-to-weight ratio.

It’s algebra: If you know your car’s weight, and you know the speed it reached in a quarter-mile, you can pretty much predict the amount of power required to produce that trap speed.

The GT-R can hit 122 or 123 miles an hour in the quarter-mile. It weighs about 4,000 pounds, with driver. There are many calculators and equations devoted to divining horsepower numbers, and given this weight and trap speed, most of them peg the GT-R’s output from 550 horsepower on the conservative end to 580 horsepower on the ”maybe-on-a-cool-day-with-a-tailwind” side. But I would eat my time slips if this car doesn’t have at least 550 horsepower.

So why won’t Nissan just ‘fess up? Maybe it’s for insurance reasons. Or maybe it’s because it’s just more fun not to know. It adds to the legend.

A Black Box for Car Crashes

When Timothy P. Murray crashed his government-issued Ford Crown Victoria in 2011, he was fortunate, as car accidents go. Mr. Murray, then the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, was not seriously hurt, and he told the police he was wearing a seat belt and was not speeding.

But a different story soon emerged. Mr. Murray was driving over 100 miles an hour and was not wearing a seat belt, according to the computer in his car that tracks certain actions. He was given a $555 ticket; he later said he had fallen asleep.

The case put Mr. Murray at the center of a growing debate over a little-known but increasingly important piece of equipment buried deep inside a car: the event data recorder, more commonly known as the black box.

About 96 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States have the boxes, and in September 2014, if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way, all will have them.

The boxes have long been used by car companies to assess the performance of their vehicles. But data stored in the devices is increasingly being used to identify safety problems in cars and as evidence in traffic accidents and criminal cases. And the trove of data inside the boxes has raised privacy concerns, including questions about who owns the information, and what it can be used for, even as critics have raised questions about its reliability.

To federal regulators, law enforcement authorities and insurance companies, the data is an indispensable tool to investigate crashes.

The black boxes “provide critical safety information that might not otherwise be available to N.H.T.S.A. to evaluate what happened during a crash — and what future steps could be taken to save lives and prevent injuries,” David L. Strickland, the safety agency’s administrator, said in a statement.

But to consumer advocates, the data is only the latest example of governments and companies having too much access to private information. Once gathered, they say, the data can be used against car owners, to find fault in accidents or in criminal investigations.

“These cars are equipped with computers that collect massive amounts of data,” said Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based consumer group. “Without protections, it can lead to all kinds of abuse.”

What’s more, consumer advocates say, government officials have yet to provide consistent guidelines on how the data should be used.

“There are no clear standards that say, this is a permissible use of the data and this is not,” Ms. Barnes said.

Fourteen states, including New York, have passed laws that say that, even though the data belongs to the vehicle’s owner, law enforcement officials and those involved in civil litigation can gain access to the black boxes with a court order.

In these states, lawyers may subpoena the data for criminal investigations and civil lawsuits, making the information accessible to third parties, including law enforcement or insurance companies that could cancel a driver’s policy or raise a driver’s premium based on the recorder’s data.

In Mr. Murray’s case, a court order was not required to release the data to investigators. Massachusetts is not among the states to pass a law governing access to the data. Asked about the case, Mr. Murray, who did not contest the ticket and who resigned as lieutenant governor in June to become head of the Chamber of Commerce in Worcester, Mass., declined to comment.

Current regulations require that the presence of the black box be disclosed in the owner’s manual. But the vast majority of drivers who do not read the manual thoroughly may not know that their vehicle can capture and record their speed, brake position, seat belt use and other data each time they get behind the wheel.

Unlike the black boxes on airplanes, which continually record data including audio and system performance, the cars’ recorders capture only the few seconds surrounding a crash or air bag deployment. A separate device extracts the data, which is then analyzed through computer software.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade association that represents 12 automakers including General Motors and Chrysler, said it supported the mandate because the recorders helped to monitor passenger safety.

“Event data recorders help our engineers and researchers understand how cars perform in the real world, and one of our priorities for E.D.R.’s continues to be preserving consumer privacy,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the trade association. “Automakers don’t access E.D.R. data without consumer permission, and we believe that any government requirements to install E.D.R.’s on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy.”

Beyond the privacy concerns, though, critics have questioned the data’s reliability.

In 2009, Anthony Niemeyer died after crashing a rented Ford Focus in Las Vegas. His widow, Kathryn, sued both Ford Motor and Hertz, contending that the air bag system failed to deploy.

The black box, however, derailed Ms. Niemeyer’s assertion that her husband had been traveling fast enough for the air bag to deploy.

Though Ms. Niemeyer lost the suit last year, her lawyer, Daniel T. Ryan of St. Louis, was successful in excluding the black box data as evidence on the grounds that the device is not fully reliable. The judge in the case ruled that because an engineer working on behalf of the defense retrieved the data, the plaintiffs, who maintained there were errors, had no way to independently verify it.

“It’s data that has not been shown to be absolutely reliable,” Mr. Ryan said. “It’s not black and white.”

The origins of black boxes, which are the size of about two decks of cards and are situated under the center console, date to the 1990 model year, when General Motors introduced them to conduct quality studies. Since then, their use and the scope of the data they collect has expanded.

The lack of standardization among manufacturers has made it difficult to extract the data, most notably during the investigations into the crashes caused by sudden, unintended acceleration in some Toyota vehicles.

Until recently, crash investigators needed an automaker’s proprietary reader as well as the expertise to analyze the data. The safety administration’s regulations will help enable universal access to the data by using a commercially available tool. At the same time, police departments are receiving training on the new regulations. In Romulus, N.Y., last week, the Collision Safety Institute, a consultancy in San Diego, helped teach New York State Police investigators how to read the devices.

But privacy advocates have expressed concern that the data collected will only grow to include a wider time frame and other elements like GPS and location-based services.

“The rabbit hole goes very deep when talking about this stuff,” said Thomas Kowalick, an expert in event data recorders and a former co-chairman of the federal committee that set the standard for black boxes.

Today, the boxes have spawned a cottage industry for YouTube videos on how to expunge the data. And Mr. Kowalick, seeing an opportunity, invented a device that safeguards access to in-vehicle electronics networks. It is controlled by the vehicle’s owner with a key and is useful in the event of theft, he said.

“For most of the 100-year history of the car, it used to be ‘he said, she said,’ ” Mr. Kowalick said. “That’s no longer going to be the way.”

Truckers Insist on Keeping Computers in the Cab

Crisscrossing the country, hundreds of thousands of long-haul truckers use computers in their cabs to get directions and stay in close contact with dispatchers, saving precious minutes that might otherwise be spent at the side of the road.

The trucking industry says these devices can be used safely, posing less of a distraction than BlackBerrys, iPhones and similar gadgets, and therefore should be exempted from legislation that would ban texting while driving.

“We think that’s overkill,” Clayton Boyce, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, said of a federal bill that would force states to ban texting while driving if they want to keep receiving federal highway money.

The legislation will be discussed at a conference on distracted driving in Washington, starting Wednesday, organized by the Transportation Department.

The issues raised by truckers show the challenges facing advocates for tougher distracted-driving laws, given that so many Americans have grown accustomed to talking and texting behind the wheel.

Mr. Boyce, who said the industry does not condone texting while driving, said computers used by truckers require less concentration than phones. The trucks “have a screen that has maybe two or four or six lines” of text, he said. “And they’re not reading the screen every second.”

Banning the use of such devices, he added, “won’t improve safety.”

But some safety advocates and researchers say the devices — which can include a small screen near the steering wheel and a keyboard on the dash or in the driver’s lap — present precisely the same risk as other devices. And the risk may be even greater, they note, given the size of 18-wheel tractor trailers and the longer time required for them to stop.

Some truckers say they feel pressure to use their computers even while driving in order to meet tight delivery schedules.

“We’re supposed to pull over, but nobody ever does,” said Kurt Long, 46, a veteran trucker based in Wagoner, Okla., who hauls flour, sugar and other dry goods.

“When you get that load,” he added, “you go and you go and you go until you get there.”

The trucking industry has invested heavily in technology to wire vehicles. Satellite systems mounted on trucks let companies track drivers, send new orders, distribute companywide messages and transmit training exercises. Drivers can also use them to send and receive e-mail and browse the Internet.

After videotaping truckers behind the wheel, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that those who used on-board computers faced a 10 times greater risk of crashing, nearly crashing or wandering from their lane than truckers who did not use those devices.

That figure is lower than the 23 times greater risk when truckers texted, compared with drivers simply focused on the road, according to the same study. However, the Virginia researchers said that truckers tend to use on-board computers more often than they text.

The study found that truckers using on-board computers take their eyes off the road for an average of four seconds, enough time at highway speeds to cover roughly the length of a football field.

Richard J. Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia institute, said videotape monitoring of 200 truckers driving about three million miles showed many of them using the devices, even bypassing messages on the screen warning them not to use the devices while driving.

“Is this any different than texting?” Mr. Hanowski said. “With either one, the risks are very high.”

In Mr. Long’s unkempt cab, the computer screen is mounted on the dashboard to the right of his steering wheel. He operates it both by touching the screen and by using a keyboard, which he often keeps in his lap (along with one of the two Chihuahuas that keep him company on his drives).

On the computer screen, there is a warning: do not use while vehicle is in motion.

“But it gives you a proceed button,” Mr. Long said with a laugh during an interview in August at a truck stop in Joplin, Mo.

Mr. Long pushes that button often. After all, pulling over to read and respond to a message, then start up again, would take 10 to 15 minutes, he said. If he’s late by even 15 minutes on a delivery, he said, his pay can be cut.

Mr. Long’s experience is typical, according to Michael H. Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University who studies the trucking industry. He said truckers had no choice but to use their computers while driving, given their deadline pressures.

Some makers of the on-board devices, like Qualcomm, sell versions of the systems that cannot be used while a vehicle is in motion or that can be used only in a limited way — for example, allowing drivers to only read messages or listen to a computerized voice reading them.

In recent years, fatalities which involved large trucks have fallen slowly, despite many safety advances like air bags and antilock brakes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2007, large trucks were involved in 4,808 deaths — or 12 percent of all driving-related fatalities.

Randy Mullett, vice president for government relations at Con-way, one of the nation’s biggest fleets, says safety is paramount for the industry, and for his company.

For instance, he said Con-way forbids the drivers of its roughly 8,000 trucks on regional routes to use a cellphone or to text while driving. Trucks on those routes tend not to have the computer systems.

For the company’s 4,000 longer-haul trucks, the company discourages drivers from texting and talking on cellphones, but does not have an official policy against it. Mr. Mullett said that such a policy would be difficult to enforce and that drivers rely on that technology to stay connected to both work and home.

Mr. Mullett also said drivers use the technology only to communicate with dispatchers, and infrequently at that.

He said drivers only have to press a button on the screen to acknowledge they received new instructions that appear on the screen. “It’s not much different than pressing a button on the radio,” he said.

Asking truckers to pull over for such a simple action is inefficient and expensive, Mr. Mullett said, given that the company loses about $1.50 a minute when a truck is idle.

“If it took a driver 15 minutes four times a day to pull over, you’d basically lose 10 percent of a driver’s time. You can’t take 10 percent of a truck fleet out of service to make them answer,” he said.

“Let’s figure out a way to work with Congress that doesn’t make these technology advances obsolete or less efficient than they are,” Mr. Mullett said.

Tim Lynch, senior vice president at the American Trucking Associations, said a compromise might exempt devices mounted in places where drivers can keep their eyes straight ahead.

“That way a driver could still be focusing on the road but looking at a device as opposed to having a BlackBerry they’re looking down at,” he said.

At least one sponsor of the federal legislation, Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said that he was not aware of the trucking industry’s concerns but that there was room to accommodate their devices without compromising safety.

“There are ways I think to preserve what the trucker actually needs in terms of doing his or her job,” he said. “I think the real danger occurs when you’re regularly texting, not when you’re looking at a machine and doing a quick answer.”

But Robert D. Foss, a senior researcher at the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said the dispatch computers and texting devices present the same potential for distraction.

“It’s hard to accept the assertion: ‘We’re just different,’ ” he said. “You know full well this is motivated by economic considerations.”

Beyond the dispatch computers, truckers said they relied heavily on an array of technologies to stay productive, entertained and connected on the road. Their cabs become like home offices, wired with CB radios, AM/FM and satellite radios, weather band radios, GPS devices, electrical outlets, laptops and even computer desks. And, of course, cellphones.

Mr. Long said he uses one or another of his devices 90 percent of the time he is on the road. He said doing so actually makes him a safer driver because it keeps him awake and alert.

And he said it was one reason he had not had any serious accidents in more than two decades as a trucker.

At least, until last Monday.

On a highway in Oklahoma, a dump truck pulled into his lane from a side road. Mr. Long slammed into it, lost control and drove into a lake.

His truck was totaled. Neither he nor the dump-truck driver was badly injured. (His dogs were hurt, one thrown from the cab, but neither badly.)

Mr. Long said he had not been using his phone or computer at the time, but he had taken his eyes off the road for an instant. “I reached down to grab a cup of coffee,” he said.

He said the lesson is that drivers need to be careful not to get distracted, particularly when they use electronic devices.

“I guarantee if you’re not an ace on that keyboard, you’ve got to look to find them letters,” he said. “Sometimes, it takes a lot longer to find a letter on that keyboard than it does to get a cup of coffee.”