Big Changes Loom In The Automotive Industry

Feb. 1, 2011
Carmakers are intent on transforming the role of software, customers’ perceptions, and the automotive environment as a whole.

The Society of Automotive Engineer’s (SAE) initial sole sponsorship of the first co-hosted (Ford and Microsoft) Convergence 2010 conference reflected abundant changes in the automotive industry. Held last Oct. 19-20 in Detroit, Mich., the conference promoted a theme of “partnerships driving smart mobility,” and it was certainly evident among the many panels and presentations. Some would say that partnerships in and of themselves are quite a change for the auto industry.

Other “changes” preceding Convergence that rattled the industry included two of Detroit’s carmakers plus several of their suppliers recovering from bankruptcy, and Toyota reeling from an incredibly long period of quality issues. Nonetheless, at Convergence, talk of change surrounded technology.

As Thilo Koslowski, vice president of the Automotive and Vehicle ICT Industry Advisory Service, Gartner Inc., noted, “Ultimately, we are talking about a new era for the automotive industry. This is really the time where automotive differentiation has to expand into service, software, and application solutions. This isn’t just about horsepower anymore.”

Coping With Change

With extensive changes come significant challenges. Examples range from drivers keeping up with and adapting to new technology, to drivers coping with technology and avoiding distraction, to software hacking.

In the first case, the human machine interface (HMI) seems to be constantly changing and improving, as carmakers focus on feedback from a broad range of actual buyers rather than limited samples from focus groups. In addition to joysticks, thumb-wheels, buttons, switches, and visual display cues, voice control is emerging as one of the alternate methods for driver interaction with certain vehicle systems, especially infotainment and comfort controls.

“Most consumers today do not understand how to use some of these technologies,” said Gartner’s Koslowski. Gartner conducted a survey to determine customer preferences for the HMI. ”The second highest category that consumers are interested in, in terms of interacting with services, is voice,” he added.

Driver distraction continues to be a critical design consideration due to increased driver interaction with digital technology. Distraction is inherently tied to the HMI. Ignoring the trend of customers using their own portable products in the vehicle isn’t an option—they will use them anyway. With the right design approaches, carmakers can reduce the distraction and satisfy customers’ desires to use infotainment products in the vehicle while driving.

The last of the three challenges seems to be the least discussed in automotive context. However, computer and network security, including protection from hackers and malicious software, are high priorities in organizations of all sizes. To avoid problems in its products, Ford is working closely with its information technology (IT) department for ways to protect vehicles. So, beyond that, what else is changing?

Changing Customer Perceptions

What is a carmaker’s brand in this emerging digital vehicle era? Ford has been one of the more proactive carmakers in redefining its brand. In his keynote address, Derrick Kuzak, group vice president, Global Products Development, Ford Motor Co., discussed the company’s technology focus in three areas: green (sustainability), safety, and smart design. “We have also set clear and, frankly, very demanding expectations so that customers will notice, and purchasing considerations will change markedly,” he said.

Technology leadership in the three areas is essential to Ford’s strategy. “Each and every technology provides a solution for our customers, to make their driving environment and their driving experience more efficient, safe, and enjoyable,” said Kuzak. Infotainment is a particular focus for Ford. “We’d like our interiors to be seen by our customers as a second home on wheels,” he said.

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The intent of Ford’s technology deployment strategy is to make customers notice Ford. The strategy has a dual thrust. “First through brand signature technology—features and technologies that are uniquely Ford’s, such as SYNC, Sony, and THX branded audio and Easy Fuel, our refueling system that will eliminate the need for a fuel cap,” said Kuzak. Ford wants the name of the technology and the features it provides to become associated with the Ford brand.

Secondly, by introducing signature technologies at a rapid rate, with new products part of every model year, Ford expects signature technologies to move customers’ view of its brand to that of a technology leader and innovator.

As indicated by Kuzak’s inclusion of Easy Fuel in his list of technologies, these changes involve more than infotainment systems. It seems like every vehicle system is undergoing radical changes to cope with customers’ perceptions and expectations.

In the Convergence paper, “Consumer Attitudes and Perceptions About Safety and Their Preferences and Willingness to Pay for Safety,” Frost & Sullivan analysts point out the increasing consumer awareness of advanced safety and driver assistance systems. This awareness ratchets up demands on vehicle manufacturers to offer advanced systems such as alcohol interlock, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, and speed warning systems.

Changing Design Techniques

Various types of fusion are among the new design methodologies pursued by suppliers for more complex systems. Continental AG authors discussed the use of data fusion to enhance traffic safety in their paper “Data Fusion Strategies in Advanced Driver Assistance Systems.” Defining data fusion as the process of combining data or information to estimate or predict entity states, Continental implemented three different data-fusion applications within its safety activities:

• Raw data fusion of information from stereo cameras
• Feature-level fusion of radar and camera for vehicle tracking
• Decision-level fusion of situation assessment hypotheses to anticipate and react for collision mitigation

Other suppliers, including TRW Automotive and Robert Bosch, also are actively implementing design techniques employing sensor fusion and sensor data fusion for safety applications.

Changing the Role of Software

Software is the new battleground for automotive change. Initially, carmakers put extensive effort into control-system software prior to introduction to avoid changes in the field. More recently, engineers have exploited flash memory to update and correct software as necessary. Now when it comes to infotainment, driver information, and some other vehicle systems, carmakers don’t just anticipate changes, but count on new software to keep up with ongoing advances in consumer electronics as well as provide vehicle-relevant apps.

As Nick Pudar, vice president Planning & Business Development, OnStar, LLCs explained in the Blue Ribbon Panel—The Mobility Ecosystems, “The website gives you unprecedented access and control and interaction with your vehicle.” General Motors and OnStar are exploring voice texting in the vehicle, but the driver has remote access to vehicle systems through cellular technology.

“The way I am connecting with my vehicle is with this device,” said Pudar, displaying his cell phone. “My whole perspective on driving efficiency has changed since I’ve actually had this connection to the vehicle.” Today, the vehicle information includes tire pressure, fuel in the tank, and charge status.

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Monitoring, controlling, and managing electric-vehicle (EV) batteries’ state of charge is expected to become a strong driver for the uptake of smartphone applications. Initially targeting home energy consumption, Microsoft’s Hohm Web-based energy-management software will help EV owners determine the most appropriate (cost-effective) time to charge their vehicle’s batteries. This is just one of many anticipated applications. The global number of automotive application users will grow from just under 1.4 million in 2010 to more than 28 million in 2015, according to ABI Research practice director Dominique Bonte.

In Vector CANtech’s paper “AUTOSAR as a Key Enabler for Collaborative Product Development,” its authors discuss how software will create even more dramatic changes in the design of all vehicle control systems as suppliers and carmakers take advantage of the AUTOSAR standard (Fig. 1). They point out that software is the single biggest enabler for collaborative product development in automotive electronics. As noted in the paper, “AUTOSAR provides a context that implicitly enables the collaborative development of automotive electronics products and eliminates many of the challenges facing traditional collaborative development efforts.”

Changes at Suppliers

Approximately 80 exhibitors at Convergence displayed new products that promise to do their part to change future vehicles. For example, unique in-wheel motors could dramatically alter future EV and hybrid EV (HEV) designs. Standout products at the conference included touch controls, 3D imaging systems, high-resolution cameras, and driver-distraction efforts.

In the presentation “The Technology and Economics of In-Wheel Motors,” Andy Watts, chief technology officer at Protean Electric said that “in-wheel motors (IWMs) can significantly improve electric and hybrid vehicles.” Already a significant change to vehicle technology, EVs and HEVs with permanent magnet IWMs could reduce the space requirements for the batteries without reducing the driving range. Meanwhile, they will still provide desired functionality, including vehicle skid control and sufficient torque. This is particularly true for higher gross weight vehicles common in the U.S., such as the Ford F-150. An F-150 could eliminate over 17 components weighing 1360 lb. to accommodate the addition of IWMs, electronics, and batteries.

One of the many issues associated with an in-wheel motor involves the friction brakes required to support the regenerative braking provided by the motors. The traditional friction brakes must coexist with the in-wheel motors. Protean Electric came up with a solution whereby the foundation brake attaches to the IWM rotor via a floating bobbin interface, using twin, radially opposed, in-side-out calipers to brake the disc (Fig. 2). Because friction brakes co-located with a motor and electrics increase the local temperature, the final cooling loop of the liquid-cooled IWM passes next to the brake components to remove heat from the system. Operating at 400 V dc, a Protean Drive PD18 with integrated inverter technology—an 18-in. IWM—achieves over 300 Nm (Newton meters) of torque at 1300 rpm.

Touch and proximity sensing improve the HMI for several applications. For instance, Atmel had a variety of touch sensing demos in its booth. Using its maXTouch capacitive-touch sensing technology, the company demonstrated a touch-enabled 7-in. display with proximity detection (Fig. 3). Proximity detection recognizes when a driver’s hand approaches the display and illuminates the display from its sleep mode. Another demo showed capacitive technology in a keyless entry system.

Several companies demonstrated the latest in blind-spot detection with 3D versions of the traditional 2D imaging systems. One example was Fujitsu’s 360° wraparound technology, which employs advanced 3D algorithms to merge the images from four cameras (Fig. 4). The imaging system uses an embeddable image-processing platform, a video-processing chip to combine the video images, and the company’s MB86R11 Emerald-L graphics SoC for automobiles. In addition to eliminating blind spots, the system offers visual assistance to the driver when backing up, turning corners, or merging. The system recently became available as a dealer-installed option for Toyota vehicles sold in Japan.

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Applications for surround (360°) view cameras, color night vision, Automotive Driver Assistance System (ADAS), and many other vision systems can be addressed with CMOS imaging technology (Fig. 5). Melexis’MLX75411 Avocet image sensor has a wide dynamic range (WDR) of up to 154 dB with an active pixel resolution of 1024 by 512 pixels, and a maximum frame rate of 60 frames/s (full frames). The camera’s responsivity for near-infrared (NIR) light (800-1000 nm) allows it to operate in low light or NIR illuminated applications.

Several efforts are underway to reduce the distraction caused by using mobile devices in the vehicle. Cell-phone manufacturer Nokia has proposed Terminal Mode technology to address this issue. In fact, QNX demonstrated an early version of Terminal Mode technology at Convergence. Subsequently, the CE4A (Consumer Electronics for Automotive) working group, with support from Nokia, released the Terminal Mode technology specification as a proposed industry standard for the integration of mobile applications into the car environment.

According to Andy Gryc, product marketing manager for QNX, mobile phones (except Apple phones) could use Terminal Mode. The technology will have provisions for driver distraction—rather than just mirror what’s on the smartphone, it enables usage of the vehicle’s display and HMI. As a result, it minimizes driver distraction and simplifies driver interaction with mobile devices, ultimately improving safety.

Changing the Future

Automakers should change their point of view regarding the ecosystems and catching up with consumer devices. At least that’s the position taken by Gartner’s Koslowski. He proposed that the automotive industry consider connectivity as something it wants to own. This can happen if the industry provides leadership and innovation.

Koslowski cited the unique advantages vehicles have over cell phones. “You have no power constraints. You have much more real estate available to create better interactions with customers.”

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