Electronic Design
Cars And Computers Hit The Road Together

Cars And Computers Hit The Road Together

James Bond used a Sony Ericsson C902 cell phone to drive a BMW 750iL off a roof and into an Avis office in Quantum of Solace. Technologists aren’t about to let the average driver do that, but quite a few other features will be accessible from smart phones, tablets, and other mobile computing devices utilizing a range of wireless protocols and applications. Many are still in the works, but some are available now.

For example, Nissan’s all-electric Leaf has an 24-kWh lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery to drive its 80-kW ac synchronous motor (Fig. 1). It can be charged using the 3.3-kW onboard charger from a 120-V source (see “Test Driving The Nissan Leaf” at www.engineeringtv.com). A typical 240-V source can be used at home for a faster charge. There is also an optional 50-kW dc fast charging port.

The 120-V source takes about 16 hours for a full charge from empty. Double the voltage and halve the time. Most charging won’t be performed with a fully exhausted battery, so charging times can vary widely assuming a full charge is required. Likewise, a full charge is beneficial but driving to the car’s limit is not a wise idea.

Unfortunately, figuring out when to take the Leaf out for a drive could be difficult unless you happen to have an Apple iPhone handy with the Nissan app installed (Fig. 2). The Leaf uses a cellular service providing a link to the cloud and then to the app. The iPhone user can easily determine the current charge, estimated driving distance, and estimated time for a complete charge.

The app is limited by what the Leaf can support, though, including the ability to turn the climate control system on and off. Still, the basic functionality that the Nissan app provides is only the starting point. A great deal more is possible if the platform can provide it.

Tracking The Car

Ford Motor Company is looking into how the cloud and hybrid can be combined to provide a better driving experience. Some of the research is being done with a fleet of Ford Escape plug-in hybrids (Fig. 3). These cars are similar to the Chevy Volt, which uses battery power and an electric motor as its primary source of motive power. The gas engine can charge the batteries and help propel the car.

Like most plug-in hybrids, the Escape automatically activates the gas engine as necessary. Manual intervention is possible, but what if the car could automatically adjust its operation based on its location? For example, drivers might want to use electric-only mode near home—call it a green zone (Fig. 4).

Likewise, there may be other areas where electric mode would be preferable, such as around hospitals or schools. Some cities are looking into specifying low-emission areas. London, Berlin, and Stockholm already have similar zones. The French government is considering the creation of zones that mandate the use of lower-emission vehicles.

Ford would allow vehicle owners to opt into the service. The system would send encrypted travel information including routes and time to the cloud. This information then would be processed using Google’s Prediction application programming interface (API) to determine the likely destination of the current trip.

An estimate is usually necessary because drivers often don’t need to use GPS navigation when driving to common destinations such as home or work. GPS tends to be used for going to new or infrequently visited places.

Time information is needed to allow the artificial intelligence in the cloud to more accurately estimate the intended route. For instance, drivers typically take the same route to work in the morning on the same days each week. Likewise, afternoon travel is usually for lunch or errands instead of returning home.

One way to augment this estimate is for the onboard system to prompt the driver. A standard prompt might be “Good morning. Are you going to work?” A positive acknowledgement provides useful navigation information, allowing the system to plan battery usage based on previous operation as well as the current state of battery charge.

At this point, cloud computing handles the planning based on real-time information from the car because the amount of computing tends to be more than the onboard computing can manage. Similarly, the mapping information can be more easily updated online.

Still, there are issues with this approach that are similar to those associated with Google Maps on smart phones. Google Maps is useful when there is an Internet connection. The program caches navigation information and maps around the currently selected route. Only real-time GPS information is needed to follow the route once it has been downoaded to the smart phone.

But problems arise if the driver deviates from the route since the onboard map is limited, as is the processing power. This simplifies the smart-phone app but can leave the driver lost. Improvements are in the works so more map information can be cached and route adjustment will be possible. Some conventional GPS navigation apps have this capability and typically store more information on the smart phone.

Ford is initially targeting fleet vehicles where it can easily track operation with a large number of drivers in a controlled environment. Ford customers will not have access to this for a while, if ever, and hybrids and electric cars aren’t generally available from Ford yet. This is also an experiment and the results may direct Ford researchers in other directions or approaches. Part of the research involves finding out which drivers will follow the recommendations. The system is designed to be as transparent as possible to the driver, and it may be applicable to other tasks such as congestion reduction.

Networking The Car

A wired car can provide rearview cameras and stream movies to video players for occupants other than the driver, but wires are expensive. Wireless offers flexibility, although it can bring up other issues. For example, don’t try to use Wi-Fi at the Consumer Electronics Show, where hundreds of vendors are vying for the dozen Wi-Fi channels there. Still, the wirelessly networked car is here now.

Audi’s A8 is one of the first cars to incorporate Wi-Fi as a standard option (Fig. 5). It employs the same kind of Wi-Fi technology as Verizon’s MiFi cellular gateway (Fig. 6). Harman and Marvell provided the underlying technology for the A8. The Wi-Fi rolling hotspot support in the car lets occupants link their mobile Wi-Fi-based devices such as smart phones, tablets, and games to the Internet.

Internet access can be provided in other vehicles by using a device like MiFi, but there are advantages to incorporating it in the vehicle’s infrastructure. First, the cellular support can be optimized for a vehicle that is traveling at high speeds. Not all mobile hotspots are designed for this environment.

Second, a link to the Internet is just one of the abilities available to a car-based solution. Access to services within the vehicle such as gaining status information or exchanging data with other infotainment hardware is a possibility. Finally, other auto-related devices can be linked via the Wi-Fi connection, though they tend to be non-critical devices such as rearview cameras. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to run brake-by-wire communications over a common wireless link.

Synchronized Cars

Wi-Fi is great for communication once devices are linked. However, getting to that condition isn’t always easy. One alternative is to leave the Wi-Fi hotspot open, but most drivers are likely to find this a poor alternative. The more tedious approach is to set the service set identifier (SSID) and password and have users enter this information. It is more secure but error-prone and confusing to many.

The one-button Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) significantly simplifies this process. It is found on the latest crop of routers and access points and works with matching devices with WPS support. Defined by the Wi-Fi Alliance, WPS generates a short PIN code that is simpler than the usual passwords.

Another technology that is becoming more common is WiFi Direct. It is a peer-to-peer system like Bluetooth, but it uses Wi-Fi exclusively. Typically, WPS is used to build the security relationships between devices.

Bluetooth is already part of the mix, being the dominant method for hands-free phone calls. Bluetooth 3.0 + HS already defines a high-speed Wi-Fi connection that’s an adjunct to the Bluetooth communication. A Bluetooth connection is initially made, and then the Wi-Fi link is negotiated.

In the long run, near-field communications (NFC) may hold the answer. NFC is already of interest to phone vendors because it could also be used for a range of applications including purchases. It requires the phone to be very close to or touching the NFC sensor, also known as tapping since tapping a phone lightly against the sensor initiates the transaction. In this case, it would synchronize the Wi-Fi link. This functionality would have to be part of the supported scenarios for the phone, but it is likely to become a more common feature.

There are many scenarios and environments where these links would be useful. For example, a taxi could provide secure Wi-Fi for the car and drive to the Internet via a cellular connection as well as another link for passengers. In this scenario, the passenger could activate an NFC sensor in the rear seat. The link would be broken when the passenger left the vehicle. The same scenario would work for any car. It sounds like a great way to car pool.

The kind of synchronization possible with this approach can already be seen in the intelligent key fobs used on higher-end automobiles. Users can unlock the door simply by touching the door handle while the fob is in their pocket. Likewise, pushbutton starting, especially with hybrid and electric cars, is another capability that is becoming standard. Luxury cars like BMWs have automatic seat adjustments that are synched based on the key fob.

A smart phone could act as key fob, though auto vendors and their lock sources may not prefer this option for a variety of reasons such as security. In any case, a synchronized smart phone may be given access to a range of other onboard services that aren’t as critical.

Another Wi-Fi link to consider would be between the car and the home Wi-Fi network. It would allow the exchange of information between applications such as navigation so a route planned on a PC or a smart TV could be ready to go when the driver enters the car. In a similar fashion, the latest news or games could be downloaded for the car’s occupants.

Of course, passengers likely will be able to download whatever they want with their mobile devices. But in many instances, this process could be automated in the same fashion as podcasts are automatically downloaded for detached listening. Not all mobile devices will support cellular communication. In addition, cellular services are starting to move to a tiered, capacity-based service, and downloading large amounts of information via Wi-Fi could be significantly cheaper than using the cellular technology.

Right now, driver interaction with infotainment and other onboard services is managed through applications tailored specifically for the driving environment because of safety concerns. Texting and talking on handheld phones is hazardous and against the law in most places. Hands-free calling is one answer, as are text-to-voice and voice-to-text technologies.

Unfortunately, most applications not specifically designed for the automotive environment don’t support this approach. Harman’s Aha Mobile app is one way to address the car’s computing environment (Fig. 7). It acts as a front end for systems such as Twitter and Facebook.

The idea is to reduce driver distraction, at least with respect to managing the system. The approach provides channels that can be easily selected by button or by name. Verbal interaction is becoming more common on more sophisticated infotainment systems.

Cooperating Cars

Interaction between the vehicle and other locations or vehicles is in the works as well. Much of this interaction is being done via cellular networks using GPS information for tracking, but other wireless communication methods could be used too. These other technologies would work even when cellular communication is limited or non-existent.

Cellular support with GPS smart phones is already part of the growing infrastructure. Google Latitude can let friends and family track a smart-phone user, and this same technology could be used with cars. Of course, the driver may have a cell phone, making some of this redundant.

But if the facility is built into the car, it could take over the heavy lifting with better GPS support since the antenna could be outside the car and power wouldn’t be an issue. In fact, given the synchronization capabilities previously mentioned, a smart phone could hand off its tracking services to the car while the phone was within range.

The other feature targeting smart-phone users that would be applicable to automotive audiences is local or location-based advertising. It faces some similar challenges, though, as the service shouldn’t distract the driver, and interaction needs to be natural and consistent.

These aren’t easy requirements to meet. They’re akin to having a reasonably standard steering wheel and brake pedal. The lock and key for starting the car used to be relatively standard, but no longer. Now it’s a challenge to find the right button to start the car.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communications also facilitate interaction with other users just as Facebook and other online services do. The difference is that GPS positioning and real-time data exchange is possible. Such communications could connect members of organizations like car clubs or even book clubs.

Other scenarios being pursued include locating and reserving charging locations for electric and plug-in hybrids, traffic and fleet management, and car diagnostics, which are especially useful if the dealer or service station can access the car’s vital statistics. The car could even help schedule a service appointment.

New cars are incorporating more microcontrollers than ever. The trend toward smarter cars will simply accelerate this process, making the typical car one of the most connected and sensor-enabled systems around.

The integration and standards challenges are likely to be stumbling points moving forward. Two groups that tend to limit access are part of the mix: the automotive vendors and the cellular network providers. Both see this functionality as a value-added revenue source with automotive owners footing the bill.

A set of standards for interfacing to the car and providing the links between devices and the car would be ideal. But it’s likely that more incremental changes will occur over the next few years before seamless and almost automatic linkages can be formed between devices.

The GENIVI Alliance is one organization working toward this goal for in-vehicle infotainment (IVI). It is looking to develop a software platform that is likely to include Linux as the base and middleware specifications on top of that.

The hardware baseline implementations shown at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show included Intel’s Atom E6xx processors and Texas Instruments’ platform based on the Arm Cortex-A8, which was shown using a BeagleBoard with an automotive carrier board (see “Hawks And Beagles Get Board,” on electronicdesign.com).

Being first in this field does not necessarily translate into long-term success. Likewise, early adopters may find their options more limited as new technology becomes more readily available.

TAGS: Mobile
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