Car makers and hobbyists are getting out ahead of embedded systems engineers in driving the Internet of Things.
Some of us are in the process of developing standards for the Internet of Things, while others have expressed skepticism that the idea will make it past the hype stage. I have come to realize recently the IoT train has already left the station and that it is rapidly speeding along with or without us.
There is significant evidence of this in the automotive industry. Here on EE Times there has been much discussion about how far along autonomous vehicles really are and whether or not they will really happen. Obviously some companies (i.e. Google) have been very public about how advanced the technology is, but the standardization effort required for widespread usage of this technology still has a ways to go. It has been easy for us to look at this as a comfortably future technology rather than one that is available today.
This perception is about to be overcome by events, because the foundational building blocks for the technology are already being put into place. New cars in the next year or two will come with optional subsystems for smart cruise control, lane assist, self-parking and other convenience and safety features that chip away at the idea that the driver is always directly in control. Previously these features have only been available in a very few high-end cars, but they are about to go mainstream. In fact, there is already discussion about making these mandatory features rather than optional because, to put it bluntly, they do a better job at these functions than most drivers.
We might still be tempted to dismiss the automotive area as an anomaly. After all, the IoT expansion is primarily going to be driven by deeply-embedded sensor devices that are the specialty of dedicated engineers like us. It takes real specialists to develop this kind of technology, and that takes time.
Yeah, that used to be the case. I also remember a similar attitude among professional programmers when these newfangled personal computers started showing up. They might be good for spreadsheets or toy BASIC programs, but it’s not like they will ever be serious computing platforms, and even if they do they will still require highly-trained software specialists to program them.
The reality is that there is a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and hobbyists that are quite willing to do interesting things with low-cost off-the-shelf hardware and free programming tools. They have caught on to the idea that the Internet is a great way of making those things do tricks that previous generations could only dream about. Their implementations are generally less efficient, robust, and secure than they really should be; and often the applications seem trivial or silly to others, but this environment is at least as creative as it was in the early days of the PC revolution or the dawning of the Internet.
Just as with those advances it will be chaotic and disorderly. The world will get ahead of the professional engineers for a while and then eventually we will be brought in to clean up the messes after the fact.
This sounds like a complaint, but in reality it is simply a statement of fact, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as with any specialty, embedded engineers are very good at rigorous implementations but most tend to resist radical changes. We want to hold them off until all of the kinks get worked out and we are sure that everything is done optimally. For better or worse, entrepreneurs and talented amateurs have no such qualms. That makes things messy, but it certainly is a creative mess!
--Larry Mittag, a consultant on connected embedded systems, can be reached at email@example.com