Phones Morphing into Cars?

Lowly Worm in an Apple Car of old. Will the future bring a phone morphing into a car?
Apple Car w/ Lowly Worm (Richard Scarry illustrator)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Are phones becoming cars or vice versa? My friend took me out for a ride in his new car and whipped out a phone when he wanted to unlock the doors and move it  forward a few feet. Then I read in the news this week that Apple, the company that makes my phone, says they plan to make a car. I don’t see a car company, like Ford or GM, hinting that they want to build phones. Please explain this topsy turvy! Bill, Fairfax.

Dear Bill: It’s a great questIion to begin the New Year. In an early DearSmartphone column (now archived) I note that Gen X and Gen Z car buyers seem more intent on how the vehicle will synch with phones and less interested to look under the hood or kick tires.

But, I don’t think it’s the prowess and performance of ApplePlay that makes people, like you, think that an Apple car might be roadworthy. I believe it is an issue of integrity and trust.

The Bread Crumb Trail:

Future vehicles will leave a bread-crumb trail wherever and whenever they travel ….from entering the roadway, logging miles, and an ever-present chatter with sensors and satellites. Think of it like being in an airplane that is never completely outside the range of the control tower.

So, future revenue may come less from selling cars and more in renting out this “car data.” Imagine that you are motoring near a big box store (assuming they still exist) and you are prompted with a flash-sale, if you’ll just alter your route and get there soon. Or, you have entered the coordinates to travel to a new destination, and the dashboard offers hotel and dining recommendations. More insidious is the dashboard recording how often you stopped for booze, even though you are technically underage.

People are worried about data privacy, about their interests and habits being bought and sold. Technically, this is happening today. Black boxes installed in cars collect data on the speed you are driving, whether you stop at signals and stop signs, and how heavy you are on the brakes. Insurance companies promise to reward good drivers and help teens but what else can they do with this information? Meanwhile, GPS routing, over our phones provides a very complete picture of where we have been. Ironically, one of the first legal cases about these privacy rights occurred when law enforcement officials attaching a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle.

In Apple We Trust?

So, a pivotal reason that people think Apple may make a better car might have less to do with engineering and more to do with the trust and integrity that people place in the Apple brand name. According to a 2019 presentation by CEO Tim Cook, Apple was differentiating itself from other Silicon Valley providers by valuing privacy and keeping more data local to the device. Today, in 2021, Apple is defending its policy of locked phones and secure passwords in a suit that could wend its way to the Supreme Court .

That said, there are also technological reasons to anticipate that Apple may be up to something ‘moving’.  It’s said that Steve Jobs considered building a car in 2008 and Apple has been making strategic hires in technology since 2014 .  Strategically, Apple is rumored to use a different battery chemistry, not the one favored by car-manufacturer Tesla in the U.S. A LFP, lithium iron phosphate battery is said to be less volatile, less likely to overheat, and its ‘monocell’ design would free up space inside the battery pack. This could reduce the cost of an Apple powered vehicle and give it more range.

Power Rangers:

Neither Apple nor it Silicon Valley rival, Google, have a natural advantage with tires and chassis. However, they do have a head-start with batteries, and batteries will power future vehicles. The people’s car might actually begin with the people’s smartphone. That said, it should be noted that Google/Waymo has been testing self-driving cars since 2009 and has logged more self-driving miles than any other company.

But, summing up, the Apple Car has always been first and foremost in my own household. Ever since my children read the book and crooned at the cartoon pictures by children’s author Richard Scarry (see image cartoon) they have been rooting for Lowly Worm in his Apple Car.

Zoom App on Phone Good?

Zoom Zoom is for Motorways….not for cars.

on a mobile phone, a picture of four people meeting asif  the zoom app is is use.
mobile zoom on phone

Dear Ms. Smartphone: This week I installed the Zoom app on my phone, but my wife went ballistic. She says that I should do Zoom meetings from my home office. We carefully set up the home office together this past March and I signed up for a faster Internet speed then. It is a nice place to work from with a good view, but I am tired of taking all of my meetings indoors. So, why should she care if I use the app on the phone instead?   Kirby, San Francisco

Dear Kirby,

First, approach this with emotional intelligence: perhaps your wife has issues because the two of you went to some trouble to set up the office- picking out suitable furniture, getting new lighting or cameras, and locking into a fast plan with your ISP.  Maybe she feels that you are showing less appreciation towards the digital “nest” you built together. Or, she views this change as a signal that you  work from home is ending. These are emotional issues to talk through. If they don’t fit, then move from emotional intelligence to digital intelligence. 

Here is the safety issue, the so-called digital intelligence. Should you interact with the Zoom app in your vehicle, as you drive, it puts you at risk of a collision, and may cause injury to yourself or others.

DistraCtion Highway 101

There are three sources of smartphone distraction in the car: visual distraction- tick one off for Zoom as you search the faces of four other people; manual distraction- tick of another one as you share your screen; and, the third, most important one – mental distraction. Many people think that they can multi-task when they drive, but honestly, driving demands our full-time faculty. Would you trust your surgeon if she browses on the phone while examining you? Would you trust the driver in the next lane who is having an angry phone call with his teen?

Even if you are a passenger, you probably don’t want to hold a Zoom meeting in the car, What happens here is that the phone call requires extra mental concentration, when we only hear one side of it. So, the driver is likely to be unwittingly engaged. 

Out of the Woods

If you are thinking of using Zoom when you walk the dog or go outside- be cognizant of the surroundings. If there are many streets to cross or busy on-coming traffic, it’s not a good idea. If it’s a walk in the woods, it’s probably OK but ask yourself if this is how you want to spend your time out of doors? Is it mindful? 

Should you need to be in this meeting in the first place if you cannot give it your full attention?  And think of the other party to your Zoom call. What are your digital manners and are you demeaning their time and input when your first priority is to walk the dog while conversing?

We all have times when we cannot be at a fixed location to take a call, so I get the usefulness of the Zoom mobile app. Note that Zoom gives you the option to make a dial-in call, without installing the app. So you can listen in and participate , but you won’t see the participants. 

When we have great technology and good connectivity, it’s not necessary to be a Luddite and resist virtual meetings. However, if you do choose to put this particular app on your smartphone, be mindful of where and when you choose to you it. Most of all, make sure you do not multi-task in the car, unless you are sitting there with the engine turned off. Zoom Zoom is for motorways, not for meetings. 

Kids Use Ipad in Car?

Long car trip, many miles to go
with 1 dog and 2 kids..should we bring out the Ipads?

Are we there yet? Displayed in text as a green road sign. There are puffy white clouds in the background.
It’s a sign of a long trip. Are we there yet?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We have a long cross-country trip ahead of us. We have two kids and one dog.  Our dog can’t get on the airplane, so we decided to take him with us. I think it is OK to let the children have their own Ipad in the car to watch a kid’s show or play games. My wife says I am taking the easy way out and we should not allow them to have the Ipads. What would you do?  The children, by the way, are ages eight and four.  Max, Boston.

Dear Max: You asked me what I would do- seriously, I would fly, but then there’s the dog, and keeping the family Covid safe. It’s good that you and your spouse are having this discussion about digital media before you set out. 

It is hard to peer out of the back-seat window for days on end. But, it’s also hard to drive with noisy, restless kids. Perhaps download a number of family-oriented books-on-tapes before you go. That way, as you drive, you can share the content together. If you give them Ipads, it is one-on-one media. You lose the ability to talk together and bring an adult view to the kid content. 

Let’s Get Bored!

But, importantly, do not underestimate the power of kids getting bored. Each person has to solve it individually and learn that feeling bored is normal. It can also become the gateway to creative thinking and focus. There is so much media to entertain young children today (and keep them quiet) that we overlook the value of downtime. A noted clinical psychiatrist says that boredom, not mental health, is the real issue bubbling up from the pandemic. So, in these times, we need to teach children that it’s OK to be bored. The psychiatrist notes that teens seems to need more novelty and sensation seeking, and their understimulated state opens the door to recreational drugs. So, a few days in the car without the Ipad may set younger kids on a better path. 

IRL Geography

Finally, there’s real educational value in experiencing the vast expanse of this country first-hand. It’s the IRL geography class. You’ll find lots of sites online for making it useful, like this one.  I would personally stop at each state’s Welcome Center so that Fido gets to stretch his legs, and the kids get a souvenir, and pick out free brochures and maps to then study in the car. Maybe your eight year old will want to keep a diary of the trip- either digitally or on paper. The point is to experience it first, record it later, and share it together. Have a good time and drive safe.