Chips in Charge – auto design

Chips in Charge – auto design

Ivan Amato

Welcome to the amazing car of the future: Safe, comfortable, and out of your control

THESE DAYS, YOU NEVER REALLY drive alone. Hidden beneath the glass-and-steel skin of a sleek sedan or a boxy SUV hides a coterie of computers that offer navigational tips, improved control, and the ability to call for assistance when something goes wrong. Like it or not, that’s only the beginning of the end of your automotive autonomy Before long, silicon chips will decide how you should behave on the road, or whether you should be on the road at all. You’ll be behind the wheel, but you won’t really be in the driver’s seat.

Crash response systems such as General Motors’ OnStar hint at where auto electronics are headed. OnStar links together a service center, air bags, the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS), and wireless communications. When a vehicle gets into an accident, the air bag goes off, and the electronics call a dispatcher. If the occupants are OK, they can end the drill and drive away. If they’re hurt or unable to respond, the dispatcher notifies the nearest emergency crew using signals from the GPS unit to wide rescuers.

All well and good, perhaps, but not good enough for Ray Resendes, program manager of the Department of Transportation’s two-year-old Intelligent Vehicle Initiative. Tens of thousands of people are killed in auto accidents each year. And driving isn’t getting easier. Roads are becoming increasingly crowded and drivers more distracted by built-in cell phones, faxes, TV sets, and, coming sooner than you think, voice-activated PCs with full Web access.

Under these conditions, it is all too easy for drivers to drift out of their lanes or follow too closely. So one of the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative’s goals is to help bring to market affordable collision warning systems, using radar or laser-based ranging devices. Thousands of trucks and buses are already equipped with primitive versions that warn drivers with beeps or flashing lights when they approach traffic too quickly Mercedes-Benz offers a more sophisticated system called “proximity controlled cruising” that kicks in when cruise control is switched on. It can preempt tailgating by easing off the gas or applying the brakes.

Even more watchful systems are beginning to show up. One incorporates a pair of motion sensors — a yaw-rate sensor that monitors how much the car is diverging from a nice tight turn, and a lateral-acceleration sensor that monitors the car’s sideways motions. They are linked to the suspension, steering, antilock braking, and traction-control systems. A computer chews on the data, then determines whether the car is heading where the driver wants it to go. If not, the computer cuts back on the gas and activates individual brakes to tame the car’s trajectory.

Limited stability-control systems are already mounted on many Cadillacs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Jaguars. Numerous researchers, including Jay Jakubczak, manager of Sandia National Laboratories’ Intelligent Micromachine Department, are working on cheaper versions that could make the systems affordable on all cars. Jakubczak sees no reason why computers shouldn’t take over more of the driving: “If [the computer] says, `hey, we’re about to go into a spin,’ it can send power to different wheels, or brake wheels, or reduce speed, or even steer to prevent that from happening.”

Resendes looks forward to what he antiseptically calls “roadway departure prevention systems,” embedded electronics that keep a car on the straight and narrow even when drunk, sleepy, inept, or bored drivers lose track of where they’re going. Several companies are developing video-based systems that scan road markings and process them through pattern-recognition software to warn drivers when they’re straying. Although automakers are very reluctant to let computers take over completely, a prototype auto developed at Carnegie Mellon University follows lane markers hand-fly without human assistance. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have identified a way to determine alertness by measuring droopy eyelids. Vehicles may one day incorporate dashboard cameras to scan drivers’ eyes. Too much sag and the car will rouse the driver awake with sounds, vibrations, or even scents.

As safety-monitoring systems multiply, cars also will become easier to monitor. That sounds like a good idea to Jakubczak, who has teenage drivers in the house. He envisions a vehicle linked by wireless transmitters to his home computer, allowing him to monitor the way his children use the family car. In extreme cases, he could remotely shut the engine down. Several companies are venturing in this direction. CarMon is a stand-alone snoop box that attaches to an auto’s interior, where its motion sensors register and store information about acceleration and deceleration. Parents or companies can dump that data onto a home computer to graphically display aggressive, reckless, or upright driving.

Surveillance systems raise so many legal, law-enforcement, insurance, and regulatory implications that Resendes cannot imagine them becoming common. Trucking companies might like to keep tabs on their drivers but probably wouldn’t install such devices for fear that the police could demand the electronic information after an accident. Yet a sensing module in many new General Motors cars already conducts a crude type of surveillance, recording the speed of a car, whether the driver has applied the brakes, and whether the driver was wearing a seat belt immediately before a crash.

An onboard diagnostic computer already knows if your car is polluting more than it should. That’s just a step away from having it report transgressions to environmental agencies. “To some degree, it’s like the little black box in airplanes,” says Allen Lyons, a manager at California’s Air Resources Board. The board is considering requiring next-generation onboard monitors to transmit emissions data to the Department of Transportation. Lyons says that would be a convenience, because only dirty cars would be summoned to an emissions inspection center.

Lyons acknowledges the proposal raises Big Brother worries. Who’s to know if the black box isn’t relaying other information, like speed data, that could bring on a different kind of summons? Lyons suggests that a switch would allow an owner to activate the transmitter only when it’s time to certify a vehicle’s emissions.

Such manual controls should help calm fears, but the warm embrace drivers have given to traction systems and active suspensions has already let the control cat out of the bag. That independent, open-road feeling may never be the same.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group