Electronic Design

Electronics Technology Will Create Safer And More Reliable Cars

Automotive advances tend to show up in luxury vehicles, mainly because consumers are willing to pay a premium for the latest and best technology. We recently spoke with Peter Patrone, department manager of the Advanced Product Planning Group, Mercedes-Benz, about current and future plans for specific automotive technologies.

ED: Wireless automotive communication services will eventually allow remote updates for features like improved engines, enhanced braking control, and new entertainment options. What kinds of security issues arise because of remote vehicle access? Also, what approaches will be taken to make such changes secure?

Patrone: Firewalls are a necessary part of any networks used in a moving vehicle where safety is paramount. The placement and number of firewalls is very system-dependent, and we address this on an individual basis.

Consumers and other vendors will have access to noncritical networks, such as those providing infotainment support. But, crossing into engine and safety controls will require the use of stricter authentication and encryption services.

Mercedes-Benz is a real believer in telematics and expects it to be a part of every vehicle over the next five years. Communication and convenience services are already available through the Mercedes-Benz Info button. It provides real-time answers to questions on travel information. We expect improvements in this area so that navigation systems can take into account centrally available, real-time traffic and road-condition information, as well as remote diagnostic support.

ED: What advantages and issues do you see with X-by-wire technology, and what kinds of X-by-wire technology do you think will be made available to the consumer first?

Patrone: Mercedes-Benz already utilizes throttle-by-wire support in almost three-quarters of its current models, including the C class, E class, S class, CL class, and one of the SL models. The throttle-by-wire control has no mechanical connections and provides very reliable engine control. It also allows the controlling computer to make adjustments based on details, such as the pedal's rate of acceleration. Adjustments to the engine's performance are based on what the driver wants versus what a direct connection would do to fuel delivery via a fuel-injection system. This allows a computer to also take into account current engine performance characteristics.

Incorporating other X-by-wire technologies will require even more reliable and redundant computer networks. We expect brake-by-wire to be one of the next technologies implemented by 2005. Steer-by-wire may be available by the 2005 model year, but it will be close. As with any new technology that we add, there must be a clear benefit to the consumer, such as reduced cost, enhanced reliability, or improved performance.

ED: What kinds of fuel economy do you expect over the next five years? Will new savings be attained using improved internal-combustion engines or hybrid systems?

Patrone: Thanks to a combination of electronic and mechanical valve improvements, our active cylinder-control (ACC) technology provides a 20% fuel-economy improvement by essentially shutting down part of the engine when maximum performance isn't needed, as in low-speed driving, or idling in stop-and-go traffic. From a driver's perspective, there's no change in driving performance because system operation is completely transparent.

ED: On-board automotive computing power is expected to increase significantly over the next five to 10 years. To what degree do you see self-diagnostics coming into play, and will it reduce the complexity of external test and diagnostic equipment in dealer service departments?

Patrone: A flexible service system will not only allow notification of service requirements on a dynamic schedule, but will also allow drivers to query the system as to when service is needed. Drivers can thus plan for service needs in advance, like for a long trip, and have it taken care of ahead of time.

Built-diagnostics will also improve service support at non-dealer locations that will not have the extensive service computers that a dealer's service department will have. This is critical because diagnostic devices may not always be available at a service location when a component fails or an accident occurs.

Self-diagnostic research will also be pushing predictive diagnostics. This will allow notification of a pending failure prior to a problem actually occurring. This will initially be targeted at critical subsystems, such as braking.

Although self-diagnostics will help, it won't be a complete replacement for dealer-based diagnostic services.

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