Personal Driving Assistants?

Very cool things are happening in the world of in-car navigation systems.

Paul Stamatiou wrote last week about the upcoming Dash Express (now defunct). It’s an in-car GPS navigation system that is Internet-powered.

I already know that I want one.

Having recently been through a 1.0 product launch, I know that a lot of the effort in creating the first product is spent getting the basics down and functional and focusing on the few specific things that will set your product apart from what’s already on the market. Dash’s main distinguishing feature seems to be its ability to connect to the Internet and provide real-time traffic conditions shared by other Dash users in your proximity.

That, in itself, is pretty damn cool, but — of course — I want more.

I was in the car a lot this past weekend, visiting friends in northern Minnesota, and it occurred to me that what Dash is building is really a first-generation personal driving assistant. I’ll abbreviate this as PDrA to avoid confusion with personal digital assistants. Given this set of ingredients (a car-sized device with a good base map, Internet access, and a decent amount of compute power), you could provide many very useful services, above and beyond adaptive navigation.

Dream with me for a moment. Wouldn't it be cool if your personal driving assistant had …

  • Voice recognition? We can glance at a computer screen for a moment while driving, but we can’t place our fingers accurately on a screen. But we can talk, right? IMHO, an ideal PDrA interface would display information on screen, pose a question (optionally speak the question as well), and listen for a verbal response. PDrA: “There is severe congestion ahead. Do you want to take an alternate route?” Driver (speaks): “Yes.” PDrA: “Take Exit 43, two miles ahead.”
  • Location-aware search? (At a basic level, this may already be in the Dash 1.0 plan, but imagine a more advanced scenario.) Driver: “I'm tired. Can you find me a hotel ahead?” PDrA: “Searching.” (PDrA contacts Orbitz/Expedia/travel site of your choice and identifies nearby hotels along your route with rooms available.) “Here are three options: (1) Best Western, 10 miles ahead, (2) Hampton, 17 miles ahead, (3) Red Lion, 22 miles ahead.” Driver: “Call option 2.” PDrA hooks into the Bluetooth cell phone and connects you to the Hampton.
  • Road quality reports? Using an accelerometer similar to those used to protect laptop hard drives, you could share information about road quality, similar to traffic reports. Then the PDrA could show a message like “Bumpy road next 7 miles.”
The road’s around here … somewhere!

The road’s around here … somewhere!

  • A self-correcting map database? Roads change. Frequently. Even the most frequently updated basemaps will be out of date somehow … somewhere. If you’re driving at highway speed a hundred yards parallel to the highway (see photo above), chances are the basemap is somehow wrong. (Side note: This situation is disturbingly common on my two-year-old TomTom Go 700, especially in more remote areas of Alaska and northern Minnesota.) Wouldn’t it be cool if your PDrA would start recording coordinates when you go off-roading and submit them to the basemap? Consider this a community-edited basemap. A Wikipedia of highway data.
  • The ability to read road signs? A small camera mounted in the back of the GPS unit could read road signs. This could, for instance, give you a warning when you're speeding (OK … when you're speeding above your personal margin 😉). And, if it got really smart, it could update the database of street names, which seems, in the case of the Tom Tom, to frequently have outdated or flat-out wrong names for streets.
  • Current local weather reports? You’re on the road, listening to the radio, when you hear a tornado warning being issued for such-and-such county. But you don't live in this state; you’re just visiting. How do you know if you’re in a run-of-the-mill thunderstorm (i.e. in another county), or you are in serious danger? Your PDrA could receive all of the storm warnings for your area and show you an alert if you’re about to drive into a danger zone. Or, in a more common case, it could overlay weather radar on your street/region map to show you how long this rainstorm will last.
  • Ratings for restrooms, restaurants, and gas stations along the way? Nature calls, and you’d like to use a clean restroom, not something that’s “attended” to once a year, whether it needs it or not. You could ask your PDrA to guide you to the nearest suitable restroom (imagine thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons based on ratings from past visitors).
  • Knowledge of gas prices? Imagine MapQuest Gas Prices, but hooked into your GPS. You pull up to a stoplight and see a gas station there. Your PDrA pops up a message telling you that gas is five cents cheaper at the so-and-so station 2 miles ahead. Want directions? (True/sad story: I once pulled up to a gas station, started pumping, then noticed the station across the street was selling the same gas for 50¢ less than I was paying. Ouch.)
  • Ferry schedules and wait times? Okay, this might not be so useful in the midwest, but where I live, in western Washington, it would be great to have my PDrA talk to the ferry system, find out when the next ferry on my route is leaving and how full it is. If there’s a three-hour wait for a ferry across the Sound, it might make sense to find an alternate route.
  • Knowledge of airport terminals and flight times? I’m headed to the airport to catch Alaska Airlines flight such-and-such. I should be able to tell my PDrA that and have it direct me to the best parking, rental car return, or drop-off zone for that flight. And it should connect to the airline’s web site and tell me if the flight has been delayed so I have more time to get to the airport.

Disclaimer: I don’t work in the GPS software industry, so I’m just hoping somebody reads these ideas and makes them happen. If you do (hint, hint, Dash!), I’d be dump-out-my-wallet excited to go and buy one.