The Anxiety of Digital: Cars, Power Grid Up Next

If you can’t recall the collective anxiety that is attached to the emergence of digital and networked technologies just take a peek back at the news headlines of yesteryear. The fear over computerized voting systems started soon after the 2000 U.S. presidential election debacle, while worry about online banking began when the first bank put its customer accounts on the web. But as the latest systems, including vehicles and the power grid, crossover to the digital and computing world, and get connected to communication networks, expect the same, if not more, fear.

The Transformation: Grid, Vehicles

Both vehicles and the power grid are undergoing massive transformations involving IT. The so-called smart grid industry has emerged to sell utilities infrastructure based on communication networks, and companies are building software and services to help utilities manage energy data. The smart grid is projected to generate $210 billion in investment between 2010 and 2015, and President Obama has called for the installation of 40 million smart (digital and connected) meters in the U.S.

Cars are going digital and connected, too. Vehicles are now “packed with up to 100 million lines of computer code,” and have “at least 30 microprocessor-controlled devices,” points out the New York Times this weekend. Many automakers offer services based on network connections, like location-based navigation (enabled by a GPS system) or GM’s OnStar System which is based on a cellular connection.

As electric vehicles emerge in the coming years there will be even more uses of software and communication networks to manage the vehicle’s charge. Utilities will have to manage the collective charging of customers, so that EV charging doesn’t take down their grids. Electric vehicle infrastructure player Better Place will be offering its customers “a comprehensive suite of in-car services designed to provide drivers with the best possible EV driving experience,” when it launches commercially in 2011. Those types of services include directing drivers to available and nearby charge points, and rely heavily on software, computing and communication connections.

The Anxiety

Before electric vehicles even hit the mainstream market, though, consumers are already getting anxiety over computer and software dependent cars. Last week Toyota said that a software glitch is responsible for the braking problem in its Prius hybrid 2010. That’s led to a new round of media headlines taking a hard look at the trend of software and computing in cars (like the New York Time’s this weekend: The Dozens of Computers That Make Modern Cars Go (and Stop)).

I’ve experienced software glitches when driving a Smart Car that’s networked in the car sharing service City Car Share, and believe me it wasn’t fun. The Smart Car has a lot of embedded software, and the City Car Share service has its own software and IT systems, and I’ve had to call customer service several times in order to restart the computing system (kinda like rebooting a computer) to get the car to work properly. As the drivers of the Toyota Prius’ with glitchy software found: beta software just doesn’t cut it at 60 mph.

The smart grid has also had growing pains. “The Bakersfield issue,” emerged when residents in Bakersfield, Calif. filed a suit against utility PG&E for smart meters that they claimed boosted electricity bills. The problem was a combination of unusually hot weather and a lack of proper customer outreach, but at the heart of the issue was anxiety surrounding the introduction of the new digital meter.

When Digital Meets High Impact

Both vehicles and the power grid have different relationships with consumers, compared to entertainment, communications and some types of information. When your wireless network drops or your browser crashes and you’re sitting in front of a computer, it’s annoying but not life threatening. Software problems and dropped communication connections could have much more serious consequences in a vehicle (crashing, being stranded somewhere, not being able to get to work, etc), and for the power grid (outages, surges, etc).

Problems with reliability of software and computing in high-impact areas has been studied for years. For example, health care — last month I read this New York Times article that investigated faulty software that caused a string of medical errors for radiation treatments and lead to several deaths. It’s terrifying to think software that controls radiation shot at someone’s chest, could freeze as easily as my Firefox browser. The aviation and defense industries have long been dealing with the impact of software and communication systems on their high-impact technologies.

There’s also the worry over networks being more susceptible to security concerns. Adding a two-way network connection, means something, or someone, can access the data — that’s the whole point of connecting it to a network. But that also means the connected system can be hacked and used in ways that it wasn’t intended. The smart grid is no different, and computer security firm IOActive has shown a virtual demo of how a worm or virus could infiltrate connected digital smart meters and crash a power grid. The U.S. government is paying particular attention to smart grid security, following warnings from the Internet industry. How long until we see headlines about hacked cars?

The companies building the future of digital, connected vehicles and the power grid will be smart to look at the lessons learned through the digitization of some of these high-impact area, like aviation, defense and health care. These companies will just have to realize how sensitive the transition is to digital, connected systems and remain hyper vigilant. But expect to see a lot more headlines about digital anxiety over vehicles and the power grid in the future.

But ultimately the transformation to digital, connected vehicles and the power grid can’t slow down due to digital anxiety. Digitizing these 2 sectors — which are two of the biggest factors that contribute to the world’s carbon emissions and global warming — is fundamental to fight climate change.

Image courtesy of FlickrJunkie’s photostream Creative Commons.

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