The vehicles that we drive – regardless of whether or not this expression is appropriate – are on their way to becoming autonomous mobile environments of their own. The Tesla Model X, unveiled by Elon Musk in 2014, was the first car to incorporate a HEPA style filtration system into its production. Tesla, a corporation whose reach and influence spans from aerospace technology to energy and transportation, saw the feature as a crucial standard for its vehicles. It’s implementation goes beyond that of traditional HEPA filter, and holds within it the ability to neutralize and eliminate pollen, viruses, bacteria, mold, and pollution.
In order to test the highest setting of the Model X’s air filter, Tesla engineers placed a Model X in a large bubble contaminated with extreme levels of pollution (1,000 µg/m3 of PM2.5 vs. the EPA’s “good” air quality index limit of 12 µg/m3). They then closed the falcon doors and activated Bioweapon Defense Mode.
What this chart shows is that the influence of the Model X extends beyond its contained environment, and seeps past its steel and carbon fiber chassis into the world that it drives within. It is this ability of the Tesla to act in three capacities – as an agent of sensing, an agent of environmental filtration, and as a gateway for both indoor and outdoor environmental regulation – that make it such an interesting object in the sphere of citizen sensing technologies.
Beyond the capabilities of Model X is the question of the car itself. Today’s cars are complex systems of sensors. They know how large they are, where they fit, and where they don’t. When and where they can and can’t open their doors. How fast they should be traveling, and when to yield. Today’s cars know how to get to their destination, and they can do it on their own. But it wasn’t always that way. The first cars had no capacity for interpretation. They used combustible engines, and were controlled by wheels and levers that mechanically altered their performance. Turning the steering wheel of a car used to literally turn the wheels of the car. The wheel itself was only a physical extension that shortened the distance between you and the gears below your feet.
From the time that the car was introduced in the mid 1800s until the 1960s, there were no major ‘updates’ to its operation. The first was electronic fuel injection, which gauged and moderated the injection of fuel into the pistons of the engine. Then came the automatic transmission, which moderated the gears and RPM. Then in quick succession were anti-lock braking systems, electronic airbags, and GPS navigation systems. What should be noted here is that in the first vehicles, the humans were the sensors. This is nothing new to those who learned to drive stick shift growing up, where you are taught to sense the vibrations of the motor in order to properly time and execute a shift. Going even further, the need for precise multi-limb coordination was replaced by the automatic transmission, the importance of a good sense of direction was replaced by GPS, and so on. In a sense, each new and important iteration of the automobile was born out of the implementation of a new sensor. And each one of those sensors removed a responsibility of the human to be an engaged actor within the vehicle.