Intelligent and Connected Cars

 

On one of my business trips to Germany, I attended one of the largest global trade shows: Embedded World. It was held in Nuremberg, Germany. High tech companies from around the world were showing off their latest innovations. At this year show, Intelligent and Connected Car technologies seemed to be what everyone was into. Fully configurable LCD/LED intelligent dashboards, autonomous driving technologies, passive safety features such as lane departure, thermal imaging night vision, and adaptive cruise control, car-to-car and car-to-traffic infrastructure communication, embedded system for hybrid and flexible fuel, and electric vehicle technologies were just a few samples of technologies displayed in several football-field size exhibition halls.

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Success in the auto industry is no longer determined by only the horsepower of an engine, or how many cup holders it has. Buyers today ask different questions. How many miles to the gallon? Does it have an eco-friendly mode? Is it electric? Does it have Bluetooth? Can I stream Internet radio? How does the GPS work with traffic conditions? Are the headlights LED? In other words, technology, and specifically software is driving buying habits of car shoppers.

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In the 1970’s, the most advanced car had 100 lines of software (code). It grew to 50,000 lines of code in 1980s. In 2012, most hybrid cars have over 100 million lines of code (MLOC) surpassing the 8 MLOC found in today’s commercial passenger airplanes and the 24 MLOC found in the latest advanced jet fighters. It is estimated that in 2014, new cars will have close to 300 MLOC. Today's luxury German car can have over 50 computers and a few hundreds of digital sensors and actuators driven by software. The focus on software is being driven by many converging needs.

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High energy costs and the threat of climate change are driving the buying behavior in people who are shopping for new cars. People are looking for cars with a combined 40 mpg fuel consumption or better. Some new car shoppers want to drive electric cars, or cars with a plug-in option, and this group is steadily growing. To satisfy these high engine efficiency requirements, automotive manufacturers are developing new technologies in power plant, transmission, aerodynamics, regenerative batteries, and driver behavior feedback. All of these technologies require more and more complex, embedded software.

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Embedded World is the mecca for people who are into cars and technologies. It was amazing to see thousands of independent embedded components produced by many suppliers that make up today's cars. Given that a malfunctioning car can be lethal to its driver, passengers, and other people on the roads, car manufacturers must implement an extremely rigorous integration testings to ensure that all of the computers in the car can not only work independently and reliably, but also they must communicate correctly to each other to perform extremely complex set of tasks. The current Audi A6 makes about 2000 decision per second to assist the driver!

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To get to this trade show, I flew into Munich and had reserved an Audi A4 from Europcar car rental at Munich airport. Upon arrival, the Europcar representative surprised me by giving me the key to a brand new Allroad. Nuremeberg is about 170 km north of Munich. I took A9 Autobahn which passes Ingolstadt, the home of Audi. I made a mental note to stop by on the way back.

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Even though this Allroad was a rental car, it was fully equipped with many new advanced features. While I was driving on A9 Autobahn, I turned on the adaptive cruise control. I was a bit nervous at first given that people that I was following were doing over 100 mph. But after a while, I became very comfortable with the idea that the car was automatically maintaining a very safe distance from the car in front at varying high speed. When the traffic was slowing down due to posted highway speed limit, the gap that the car's computer decided to maintain was smaller than the gap when the traffic was flowing at much higher speed.

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Another features that I found it extremely useful on the high speed autobahn was the blind spot detection. Several Audis and Porsches passed me at light speed when I was already doing 200 km / h. The blind spot detection alerted me well in advance that there was a car approaching at a very high speed from behind and to the left of me. The blinking rate of blind pot detection indicates the relative speed of the approaching car.

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The real-time traffic map on the satellite navigation showed a stop-and-go traffic for about 9 miles due some road construction and I was right in the middle of early evening commute hours. So, I looked for an alternative B road. I figured it would be more fun to enjoy this brand new Allroad on the twisty scenic, hilly road than to sit in a crawling traffic.

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On B roads, I decided to turn on an additional feature; lane assist. I experienced the lane departure warning for the very first time in an Audi Q5 in Tuscany in 2008. Back then, the steering wheel vibrated when I crossed the lane if I had not turned on the turning signal in the direction of my drift. To my surprise, the lane assist actually corrected my steering. For a second or two, the steering wheel moved by itself to put the car back to the center of my lane.

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So, how well would an adaptive cruise control and lane assist features work together, I wondered. Surprisingly very well. In an empty B road, the car was able to maintain itself at the speed that I had set and to stay at the center of the lane without my hands on the wheel. When there was slow traffic, the car slowed down and corrected the steering when the road curved to make sure the car stayed in the center of the lane. When traffic picked up again, the car accelerated to the preset speed. The car alerted me when it could not “see” the lane markers on the road so I would take control back. Amazing!

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We heard that Audi and Mercedes are already successful in producing autonomous driving cars. While these advanced cars are not for sale yet due to not-yet-defined law and policy governing them, the brand new well equipped Audi cars already have probably 80% the features and technologies that make up an autonomous car. What's missing is called zFAS module. A compact module created by Audi engineers that functions as the brain for Audi piloted driving. Audi was able to shrink what used to take a trunk full of computing equipment for piloted driving to a circuit board in the size of a laptop! This breakthrough in circuit design enables not only a cost effective way to produce the brain of Audi piloted driving but also maintains the practicality of the car as the module doesn't take any existing usable space in any Audi car. zFAS incorporates and processes data gathered by ultrasonic sensors around the cars, cameras, laser scanners, GPS and navigation data to understand and navigate the world. The future is here! Vorsprung durch Technik.