Fiat recruits MediaLab to build the cars of 2050

24 Oct 2002

When people think of creativity, they usually think of an artist sitting by the banks of the Seine describing a scene on canvas, or fashion designers with pins in their mouths sweating over what is going to shape the next season.

In the business world, however, creativity is a multi-billion euro research industry that keeps some of the world’s leading corporations awake at night, struggling to give more to a world that seemingly has everything.

Everything from cars, sport shoes, gaming consoles and mobile phones to feed a mass vision of the ideal lifestyle defines this order, and big business is only too eager to please.

In Ireland, our own €62bn ICT (information communications technology) industry is in service to this money-chomping giant, where electronics manufacturers, software programmers and indigenous IT houses endeavour to make the visions of marketers and designers a reality. On our own doorstep, designers are currently working to establish the next generations of cars right up to 2050. At MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) MediaLab Europe, which forms the cornerstone of the Digital Hub in Dublin’s Liberties, researchers are working with Fiat designers to develop zero-accident cars, as part of a project for which venture capital is currently being raised.

MIT MediaLab has over 10,000sq ft of facilities in Dublin to house a broad range of rising technology stars whose research and creations will pop up across a broad array of industries in the coming decades. The Government has invested €30m, with a significant remainder coming from industry investment that stands to share the fruits of the lab’s labours.

In Fiat’s case, the plan is to develop a digital human machine interface system for cars of the future. Driving the project is Fiat’s Turin-based global director of design, Michael Robinson, a talented sculptor and painter accredited with designing the Fiat Bravo and Lancia, as well as futuristic concept cars like Dialogos and Nea and luxury vehicles like the Lybra, Phedra and Thesis.

Some would describe Robinson’s future vision as apocalyptic, ingenious by others, and it is exactly what MIT researchers in Dublin are helping him to work on. Robinson, who is in Dublin to speak at MIT MediaLab’s OpenHouse this week, explained: “Last time I was in Dublin, I returned with a notebook of sketches I drew for future cars. The researchers are working with me to develop these concepts and we are going to help raise venture capital for it.”

He explains his vision: “The new car of today essentially has what every driver needs and expects: safety, luxury and space. Our job is to discover what makes it a positive experience, and if they have everything they want, then our job begins again at zero. One of the things we are working on right now is a factory-made chauffeur called Ambrogio – essentially a database software engine of your driving experience that will know your desires, anticipate your needs and can take you wherever you want to go.

“Every car by 2050 will have personalised chauffeurs that will do the driving for you and I predict that by 2050, driving will be illegal on public roads. Our aim and some of the work we are doing with MediaLab is to enable a vision of zero accidents. Every year, 44,000 people are killed on European roads, entirely attributable to human error. The only way to avoid that is to have total man-machine integration. At that point you will jump into your car and Ambrogio will take you where you want to go by recognising standard road markings through visual recognition, sensors and interaction with wireless networks and the internet for directions.

“Even the principle of ownership will change: people won’t own the cars they drive, but they will subscribe to a service,” Robinson explains. “There will only be outsourcing of driving services that will suit today’s generation Y, who have grown up with PlayStations, use mobile phones and are promiscuous about choosing providers. In the same way that you change or upgrade mobile phones, you may have a standard business or leisure car that you can replace with a spacious multi-purpose vehicle for a holiday with your family.”

Robinson points to present trends in car building, whereby the latest luxury car from Fiat – the Dialogos – has over 52 computers inside, and can perform intelligent cruise control in traffic, starting and stopping as traffic ebbs and flows. “I’m a big believer in car-to-car computing,” he said, pointing to how car manufacturers are installing SIM chips in mobile devices in car engines for performing remote diagnosis. “Basically the idea is for the manufacturer to know when a car has a problem even before the driver does and perform remote maintenance or alert the driver if the problem is really serious. But, that can lead to hacking by mechanical hackers who can break into the car’s computer and try to get more horsepower out of the engine.

“The work at MIT is an interesting approach to business, in that it is cross-corporate and cross-cultural, whereby the research that is invested in it may not be exclusively or specifically aimed at the automotive industry, but we can glean something from it too. Mostly I have dealt with MIT in Boston, but the regional spread of MediaLab means I do not have to travel so far, and in Dublin there is a wealth of brains, some highly intelligent and exceptional people we can work with,” Robinson added.