A revolution is brewing in the modern automobile. Today, cars are manufactured with increasing intelligence, functioning as sensors, data collectors and communicators. These technological advances are paving the way for some fundamental changes in how cars function in the world and how we interact with cars, including whether or not we will even need to drive them. Google’s most recent model of its self-driving car does away with foot pedals and the steering wheel.

If this kind of technology continues to be implemented it could completely redefine what we should expect from cars, from safety to reliability to road infrastructure to in-vehicle entertainment and productivity. Additionally, this shift is opening up new data that has the potential to unveil larger societal and transportation problems. Inspired by what is going on in the auto world, the Revs Program at Stanford has joined forces with the Stanford Journalism Program to put on a conference, scheduled for Feb 13, 2015, that will share and discuss the changes in the car industry and the new journalistic opportunities arising from them.

Summer research has led to an outline of key themes that will anchor the conference. For one, the driving experience is slowly but surely moving in the direction of automation, with computers and sensors taking the place of a driver.

Right now, this consists of “super cruise control” settings, where the car can take over in a traffic jam for limited amounts of time. But in the not-so-distant future, this self-driving feature could envelop the entire driving experience. One important product of this? Data. The sensors that drive an autonomous vehicle will gather vast amounts of data as they survey the roads. Google’s driverless car gathers nearly one gigabyte of data per second (an entire two-hour DVD file is roughly 0.8 gigabytes). Collectively, this data could make it possible to discover and solve problems on the road in ways never before possible.
Another product of our research is the launch of our own database that will comprise of various sources for vehicular data. The database will include all vehicular data that we can find from the public and private sectors. We want to make it available and accessible for anyone to examine. There is already a substantial amount of data on cars, roads, location, traffic, accidents, fatalities and much more. The government is one fruitful source of this data. Official “open data” initiatives are becoming widespread, including the launch of Data.gov for federal data and also with cities beginning to post local data online.

"Data driven journalism process" courtesy of Mirkolorenz. Licensed under Creative Commons

Additionally, there are companies who use shared location data as part of their services, such as Waze (owned by Google). These services crowdsource the GPS points from all app users to reveal what traffic is like where you are. Among car manufacturers, there is a growing interest in opening up a car’s data for drivers and app developers to use. The vision is that the computer in your car can be similar to a smartphone marketplace, with apps interacting with vehicle data to enhance aspects of the driving experience. Advanced software and connective technology is also setting the stage for vehicle-to-vehicle communication, hopefully enhancing road safety by sharing vehicle information with other drivers on the road.

"Jurvetson Google driverless car trimmed" courtesy of Flckr user jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson). Trimmed and retouched with PS9 by Mariordo.

The landscape for vehicular data is ripe for examination and discovery. There is potential for interesting and novel methods for reporting. For example, the Florida Sun Sentinel recently won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigative piece that used highway toll data to uncover pervasive speeding by off-duty police cars. Beyond the theme of data, the conference will be an opportunity to discuss and reflect on the real challenges that journalists face while covering such a changing and impactful area. We are excited about the potential here for journalists, car enthusiasts, graphic designers, computer science folks, data nerds and anyone interested in this fascinating time for the automobile.

"SR 417 University Toll Plaza" by SPUI - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We will be posting more details about the conference in the coming weeks. Until then, circle your calendars for Feb 13, 2015.