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On Mobile Phones and Phone Mobiles

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

Jamie KitmanwriterTim Marrsillustrator

Our cars and our phones are not just becoming more compatible. After years of flirting, the telecom and automobile industries are now in the advanced stages of seriously getting it on, and we can see most graphically pretty soon they're going to need to get married. Cars and phones are becoming the same thing. While many of us were busy social networking and shopping online, modern cars equipped with 4G capability, big color touchscreens, and driver assistance systems began morphing into phones. And vice versa. Exceedingly nosy yet truly mobile, feature-filled communication devices.

The underlying pattern is growing familiar. When three-, four- and five-hundred horsepower became as easy a marketing tool for carmakers as falling off a log, technology stepped in to prevent unskilled drivers from falling off the mortal coil—and taking others with them—in the form of all-wheel drive, traction and stability control, and all manner of driver overrides. And now that a nation of text-happy, Web-surfing drivers have started taking out bridge abutments and school buses with abandon, technology is stepping in to let us continue to drive while interfacing with the interwebs and allowing the car companies and the telecoms to sell us more services and technological gear. In neither case, it seems, has anyone stopped to ask: Is this really a good idea?

It hasn't happened overnight, and the final chapter has yet … well, there is no final chapter. And maybe I'm just getting old. But you can bank on this: Even those who are absolutely cool with what's going on with cars today will begin sweating when communications and transport enter the fourth dimension. Life being finite, many of us will miss that future blight on the tranquil life. But based on what we know already, it's inescapable that before long our cars will become self-driven. Also, our fuels will change. But the oil companies will be the ones selling the new fuels to us—only, of course, when they're good and ready.

Now, I know I've been going on about these things for some time. But as Mark Twain recorded in his posthumous autobiography, "A man who goes around with a prophecy-gun ought never get discouraged. If he will keep up his heart and fire at everything he sees, he is bound to hit something by and by."

So let me add these related predictions: Taxpayers will be asked to pay for the automated highways our automated cars will need and for the infrastructural improvements associated with replacing gasoline and diesel as our fuels of choice. The changes will be made in the name of safety, efficiency, and the environment, benefits that may indeed be real. But the economic beneficiaries will mostly be the same as always, plus the telecoms.

So why harp on? Because we're enthusiasts, and what is coming can only give us pause. Driving requires focus, determination, and—to do it really well—skill. But the truth is the very act of looking where you're going is heading the way of the Oldsmobile. And along with it goes the daily pleasure of actually driving. The ridiculously fast Mercedes-AMGs and Dodge SRT Hellcats that make the headlines these days? Head fakes and placeholders as the automobile industry accelerates down the path to completely automated driving.

The phone companies and automakers realized they were leaving money on the table. Observing the new technology, it simultaneously dawned on the two great industries that the last frontier, the last place you might be safe from invitations to shop or social network, is in your car while driving, listening to your own music, the sound of your loved ones, or perhaps a mellifluous exhaust note. Hundreds of billions of hours wasted, from their point of view, in which you are unable to do all the consumer-y things that underpin the modern economy, such as having your data mined from underneath you. They can fix this problem, but it'll cost a trillion dollars. And it will happen.

For there is not money enough to feed the hungry or solve global warming. But don't doubt whether there will be money to wire the roads for self-driving cars that allow us to shop and be marketed to more hours of the day.

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