Two years ago, Sun Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy wowed the crowds in Detroit with his prediction that cars would be Java-enabled Internet platforms so interconnected with the rest of the universe as to be nothing more than mobile nodes on a vast digital plain. In fact, said the son of a former American Motors sales exec, cars would be like cell phones, something the car companies would give away in order to capture the revenue stream arising from all of the digital wonders about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. How times change.
The hype collapsed faster than a tech-heavy 401K well before the 2002 version of the Convergence transportation electronics conference, whose unofficial theme could best be described as “feasible automotive electronics.” Which means it eschewed the glitz of the failed dot.com community for a more rational look at what electronics can do. James Ruthven, IBM’s program director, Automotive Solutions, put it this way: “The consumer applications pale in comparison to how the auto industry can use the information within a vehicle. Telematics will be used for real things.” In his estimation, these things include: analyzing accidents to determine the need for–and design of–future safety standards, tracking fleet and passenger vehicle use patterns in order to customize service intervals, comparing this data with repair data to reduce the number of failures in the field, and providing supporting information to the driver when the “Check Engine” light comes on. “Only after this initial benefit is felt,” says Ruthven, “will this same infrastructure be used to supply consumer products.” And with that, here’s our look at some of the technologies of note from Convergence.
Dana (Toledo, OH) was at Convergence to promote its joint venture with Emerson Motor Technologies, which will operate under the “Dana Emerson Actuator Systems” banner, as well as a number of underhood applications currently in development. These include three forms of electrically assisted power steering (Electric Hydrostatic Steering Assist, Electric Hydraulic Power Steering, and Electric Power Steering), a 12-volt stop-start starter/alternator unit, electronic oil pumps that supplement downsized mechanical units for longer oil life and greater fuel efficiency, and an intelligent cooling system. The latter regulates coolant flow through an electronic water pump and multi-port proportional flow control valve, and draws information from sensors embedded in the head gasket. The latter item contains temperature and flow rate sensors, and also can be fitted with pressure sensors that tie directly into the engine controller.
Valeo (Auburn Hills, MI)–which showed an alternator/starter stop-start system of its own, and has a thermal management system ready for 2005 model year production–announced a joint venture with Raytheon to develop new sensing technologies for blind-spot detection, back-up assist, and collision warning. The company also showed new window wiping technologies, including a programmable motor that rotates just 180°º, which means a smaller, less complex windshield wiper linkage can be used. This helps packaging, and vehicles with an opposed wiper system can eliminate the current cross-vehicle linkage by using two motors. On a systems basis, says Valeo, the cost penalty is near-zero. Also, because its sweep is programmable, the motor can be commonized across platforms and used both front and rear, eliminating the need for multiple motors.
BMW showed examples of a technology called “Pixel light.” Based on developments in micro-mirror projectors, Pixel light uses up to 500,000 digital micro-mirror devices (DMDs) to perform the reflector function. Each pixel in the light beam corresponds to one micro-mirror, which is controlled by specially designed microchips. The light system is fixed in place, but the beam itself can be programmed to suit conditions. Not only can this technology be used for headlamp leveling and swiveling, intensifying the illumination of road markings, or adapting a single light system to right-hand or left-hand drive, BMW says it can use it to project navigation information onto the road surface.
The folks from Advanced Micro Devices (Austin, TX) showed their Au1500 processor board. It promises +500 MIPS performance at less than half a Watt of power, which translates to half the power for performance equivalent to today’s processors, or twice the speed at the same power level. Said Brad Hale, AMD’s Personal Connectivity Solutions director of strategic marketing, “With more performance at the same price point and by eliminating components, this will enable real-time text-to-speech, more accurate voice recognition, and help drop the option price of navigation systems from the current $1,500 to about $500.”
Some of the parts elimination Hale mentions will come from placing controls on the navigation/entertainment unit’s screen. Said Bruce DeVisser Fujitsu Microelectronics’ (Waltham, MA) Input Devices product marketing manager about moving more functions to screens: “This will save space and cost, but the screens have to be capable of withstanding one million input cycles, temperatures from -30ºC to +85ºC, humidity levels of 95%, resist smudging, and be easily cleaned. They’ll also need greater glare resistance due to the trend toward more vehicle glass area.” And while most OEMs currently specify glass screens, Fujitsu announced it has a resistive touch screen that meets these requirements, and costs less than $100.
Driving all of these devices will take specialized software, and where there’s software, Microsoft (Redmond, WA) can’t be far behind. The company announced it would change the name of its in-car software platform from “Windows CE for Automotive” to the more digestible “Windows Automotive.” Built on a Windows CE base, Windows Automotive will be the first Microsoft telematics platform designed exclusively for the automotive market to include .NET Compact Framework. It will have native support for voice-enabled Bluetooth devices. Microsoft software also is at the heart of Toyota’s “G-Book” information network service for in-vehicle multimedia systems whose key components include a customizable graphical user interface and Internet access.
Meanwhile, QNX Software Systems (Kanata, Ontario, Canada) announced that Harmann International, Hitachi, Johnson Controls, and Ford’s Research Lab are using its Neutrino operating system for various projects. These include developing radio, navigation, telematics and multimedia systems. QNX CEO Dan Dodge said the key for his company is to provide, “a high degree of modularity and in-service upgrading in a fault-tolerant operating system where protected software modules that have ‘crashed’ can be restarted on-the-fly.” The company made its mark in the industrial and medical markets 22 years ago, and–as Dodge likes to point out–“is in everything from the space shuttle to nuclear reactors to air traffic control towers.”