Joseph Smarr

Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Month: November 2015

Has Tesla’s personalization crossed the line?

One of the cool things about owning a Tesla is that when you have to take it in for service, they often give you a loaner Tesla to take home. It feels like nothing’s changed–until you realize that all of your personalized settings have effectively been reset. In the past, this wasn’t a big deal, but I just took my car in for 36 hours and had an unexpectedly jarring experience. I thought I’d share it because it surprised and fascinated me how pervasive and important this personalization has become.

It may be tempting to dismiss this all as “first world problems”, and obviously the car still did go from A to B just fine, but I was struck by how much I’d unknowingly come to depend on many forms of personalization Tesla offers. None of the following examples are hypothetical or contrived–they each took me by surprise and made me go “hmm”:

  1. I couldn’t open my garage door when I got home (I don’t normally carry a house key since I come and go by car, but luckily the garage has a keypad backup!)
  2. My seat position, steering mode (stiffness), etc. were different enough to frustrate my muscle memory
  3. The loaner hadn’t enabled “walk away door locks”, so I inadvertently left the car unlocked for several hours
  4. I had to re-pair my phone via bluetooth before I could resume listening to my current audible audiobook (never as smooth an experience as it should be, esp. when adding a duplicate “Tesla Model S” endpoint!)
  5. My home/work/favorite map destinations were missing, meaning I had to re-find and enter my daughter’s preschool address (to get traffic-aware driving directions/time)
  6. I was surprised to find my windshield and windows fogged up in the morning, until I remembered that my car normally remembers when I tend to leave in the morning and automatically warms itself up beforehand (“smart preconditioning”)
  7. Similarly, my car normally notifies me proactively if there’s a faster route to home/work than usual (based on current traffic conditions), but not this time
  8. My phone buzzed from the Tesla app, but it was because they’d stopped charging my car at the service center, not the car I was currently charging at work
  9. I can normally find where I parked my car, see how much charge it has, and even unlock and start it using the Android app, but none of those things work with the loaner car
  10. My daughter loves listening to some of the kids music stations on Slacker radio (each car comes with a pre-registered account), but the loaner car didn’t have any account attached, meaning I couldn’t play her that station (and even if I could, it wouldn’t remember which songs we’d ranked up/down before)

By the time I swapped back, I’d manually corrected many of these differences, but of course that creates its own problem–this loaner car was now full of my personal data (home, work, daughter’s school, paired to my phone, etc.) with no obvious way of wiping the data (I presume they do something like a factory reset before handing out the car to the next customer, but it was never discussed with me).

Now, any loaner car situation would entail some of the problems above, but most cars aren’t as personalized to start with, and the fact that I was still driving “the same car” made it all the more surprising when the car didn’t behave like it used to. More to the point, Tesla’s persistent internet connection and over-the-air software updates put it in a unique position to actually solve many or all of the above problems. I normally think of cars as fairly fungible, but clearly these are not normal cars.

“You can’t go this far and then not go further!” –Homer Simpson

To me, Tesla’s personalization has clearly crossed the line from a minor convenience to an essential part of the ownership experience. The solution then, it seems to me, is to take Homer’s advice and sync all your personalized settings to the cloud, thus enabling you to “log in” to a car and transfer your settings before you start driving. Then you could also “log out” when you’re done and reset the car. Tesla already has all the necessary building blocks to build this–the car is persistently connected to the Internet, each driver has a “My Tesla” account that knows the VIN number(s) of their car(s), and the Tesla mobile app lets you log in with your My Tesla account and view/control the state of your car.

They even dipped their toe in the water with their recent calendar integration, which uses bluetooth and your My Tesla app to show your upcoming calendar appointments on the Tesla console (with one-tap driving directions to the destinations). It’s an effective but oddly orchestrated integration, suggesting that they were aware of the potential to “do it all in the cloud”, but chose to stop short (perhaps for a mix of technical and privacy reasons?)

Tesla also currently has support for multiple “driver profiles” per vehicle, which control not only the seat positions but also favorite radio/streaming stations, preferred steering mode, A/C and temperature, and more. It’s not much of a leap to suggest that you should be able to enter a new Tesla, pair your phone (perhaps with a quick tap on an NFC terminal built into the center console?) and choose to “download your driver profile”, bringing with it all of the personalized settings mentioned above. This would be useful not only for loaner cars but also when upgrading your own car or even borrowing a friend’s car. Since not all cars have identical hardware configurations, this “import” step would allow each car to flexibly pull down the applicable settings while ignoring the rest. Such a model would also be a lot simpler than attempting a full two-way sync.

As a bonus, this might solve a silly but common frustration / feature request I’ve heard from multiple Tesla owners: the ability to select your driver profile from the mobile app before entering the car. Anyone with a significantly shorter spouse often has to embark on a series of contortions to reach the center console when the seat was  left all the way forward. :) I presume this isn’t currently possible because the driver profiles are not synced to the cloud, but once they were…

To end on a personal note, one of the things I love most about using and working on cutting-edge technology is the feeling of how “unfinished” it is. Swimming in uncharted waters reminds me that the future has yet to be written, and that it’s up to all of us to figure out where to head next. I didn’t realize that my car had gotten sufficiently personalized to need a cloud-based auth system, but it now seems obvious in hindsight. What other needs and opportunities will we discover as the lines between digital technology and the physical world continue to blur? Only one way to find out…

Machines Learning About People: What’s Next? (Future in Review 2015)

Interview with Ed Butler (photo by Kris Krüg)

I’m still buzzing with excitement and energy from attending my first Future in Review (FiRe) conference in October. I’ve been to my fair share of tech conferences, but rarely have I experienced such a dense concentration of brilliant and inspiring people from such a diverse set of fields (from cyber security to graphene, from China experts to environmental activists, and more) in such a relaxed and inviting atmosphere (we were all holed up in the Stein Erikson lodge in Deer Valley for the week, so nobody just gave their talk and took off). I see now why The Economist has called it “The best technology conference in the world.”

Another thing that makes FiRe special is how many of the participants are also speakers. True to form, conference organizer Mark Anderson threw me in the deep end with not one but three speaking slots: a 5-minute “view of the future” lightning talk, a 15-minute 1:1 interview with the BBC’s Ed Butler on “Machines Learning About People: What’s Next?”, and co-hosting a breakout session on AI and Robotics with Scout co-founder Brett Horvath. Unbeknownst to me, the first two sessions were recorded, and Mark has allowed me to share the MP3s of those talks here:

  • “Hot Spots: Five Views of the Future” (first 5 minutes are me talking about how ubiquitous sharing and context-aware gadgets will soon make us much smarter about the places we visit and people we meet)
  • “Machines Learning About People: What’s Next?” (Ed and I discuss why machine learning is increasingly used for personalization, why it’s both necessary and exciting, what the technical and privacy challenges are, and so on; featuring a surprise Q&A with Cory Doctorow at the end).

Demoing Google Stories (photo by Kris Krüg)

You can probably tell from my speed of talking in the first one that I was a bit nervous/excited to be speaking in front of such an august crowd. By the second talk (on the following day), I had calmed down a little (but this is still me we’re talking about). l hope they’ll invite me back next year, but either way, I’m even more optimistic for the future having seen firsthand how many super smart and driven people are out there tackling the full spectrum of challenges facing us!

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