I'm at the Intelligent Transportation Systems conference in Detroit, the biggest auto technology expo in the world. And after walking the aisles of Cobo for over two hours, this GM concept from 1956 is the coolest thing I've seen. That says something.
You've probably seen the Firebird II Concept before. It's made entirely out of titanium, powered by gas turbines, and is so Jet Age they should keep it on permanent display on the moon. It was also very prescient.
The Firebird II was GM's vision of the future, not so much in design as in functionality. First, it featured the earliest inklings of an infotainment system, with an embedded TV and another screen that showed a map, navigation, and plotted a route when it was time to refuel. Secondly, it was designed to travel on roads equipped with a metallic conductor embedded in the asphalt, allowing drivers to radio a master control tower to enable auto-pilot so they and the fam could catch the latest episode of The Honeymooners, sponsored by Camel.
Contrast that with what's on offer from ITS, and GM wasn't too far off.
The focus at this year's show – which comes to North America every three years – is connectivity and vehicle-to-vehicle communication. They're the perpetual buzzwords of the industry and everyone is trying to get on board. In some cases, it's a problem.
On the connectivity side, the same battle that's plagued the industry for a decade is still raging: everyone wants to own the dash and doesn't want to cede control. That goes for both the automakers and the parts companies that supply them.
GM, Ford, Honda, and Toyota all have a presence at ITS, and every one is still hocking their baked-in infotainment systems which are perpetually dated and doomed to underperform. They're obsessed with "branding", unwilling to accept that the people buying their cars should have the ultimate say, not in the safety aspects, but in how their devices connect and provide content, be it streaming music, navigation and traffic information, or relevant apps. But that would mean relinquishing some control, and they don't trust us to make those decisions. Maybe that's smart for the general populous, but if they can trust us with a 707 horsepower Hellcat, maybe they can give us the benefit of the doubt on how we want to get directions to Tim Horton's or stream Howard Stern.
Hopefully, that's where Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto will finally make in-roads, and with most of us inclined to use our smartphones for the things we traditionally relied on the head unit for, both can't come soon enough. But it's telling that neither Apple or Google have a presence at ITS.
Google may be most notable in its absence considering its work on autonomous cars, but for good reason. Google X – the company's skunkworks division that developed its self-driving car and other "moon shots" – doesn't bother with a project if other companies are working on it. And that goes for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure systems, the current darlings at ITS.
With NHTSA and the DOT backing standards for car-to-car communication, companies are clamoring to get on board. Suppliers like Denso and Delphi, along with GM and Honda, are all showing some form of V2V and V2I integration. And unlike the despicable state of in-car connectivity, they're playing nice with one another.
I've already experienced it in a Ford Taurus SHO prototype that alerts the driver when another car is about to run a red light or a vehicle that I couldn't see slammed on its brakes. I'll be checking out more later today, but I'm already impressed. Mainly because it's not about giving up control, but getting more information. It's one stepping stone to the world envisioned by the Firebird II, but far more feasible and minus the bubble canopy.