Electronics Will Inspire Safer, Fun-To-Drive Cars

June 16, 2003
In just two to three years, electronics technology will nearly re-nvent automotive safety and comfort.

In just two to three years, electronics technology will nearly re-invent automotive safety and comfort. In fact, it will be difficult to believe that so much can happen so quickly to transform the automobile into an "intelligent" and pleasurable driving entity. All kinds of technology will proliferate in cars. Coupled with advanced hardware and software products, they'll lead to safer and more comfortable driving levels for occupants (Fig. 1). Many of these sensing systems won't only detect an actual crash event as they do now, but also its severity and precise location. Plus, when equipped with a GPS system tied to a telematics provider, these systems can notify emergency personnel of the crash's urgency and the level of medical help needed.

Some designs now include so-called "pre-safe" systems, which sense possible collisions in advance based on emergency braking, skidding, and sudden evasive maneuvers. They will prepare a car by automatically moving the front seat either backward or forward for the safest distance from the instrument panel, adjusting the seat belt for the correct tension, and even closing the sunroof in case of a potential rollover. The idea is to "cradle" the car's occupants for maximum safety.

In the next few years, improved networking software will fine-tune braking and downshifting moves, optimize engine temperature, and manage the generation and consumption of electrical power. Bosch (www. boschusa.com) is expected to bring the technology to the market as early as 2005. This should eventually lead to more responsive and more fuel-efficient cars with fewer undesirable emissions. And efficiency should improve to 80 miles/gallon for conventional internal combustion engines.

While telematics' penetration in the passenger car has been modest, it has been on the fast track in the commercial vehicle sector. Second-generation GPS systems on the drawing board will allow truck fleet managers to communicate with the fleet's drivers in a full two-way manner through voice messaging. Drivers will also be able to speak without picking up a device like a cell phone.

As for automobile comfort and convenience, future automotive displays will resemble miniature movie theaters by dispensing telematics, driving, and entertainment information. MEMS-based laser-projection systems are now under development. Here, entertainment information is presented on various internal car surfaces, like seatbacks, by using front-projection systems. Instrument panel data is provided via rear-projection systems (opening figure).

Drive-by-wire systems will gain momentum, ridding cars of traditional mechanical and hydraulic linkages that connect drivers to the tires, brakes, and engines, as well as increasing fuel efficiency (Fig. 2). Though some concern remains about their "safety-critical" attributes compared to traditional linkages, drive-by-wire systems are investigating a number of architectures said to provide the necessary safety, flexibility, and cost goals needed.

To underscore its commitment to drive-by-wire technology, last year, General Motors (www.gm.com) announced plans for 2 million of its engines to incorporate "Displacement On Demand" technology by 2008. This technology allows eight-cylinder engines to transform themselves into four-cylinder units, and six-cylinder engines to three-cylinder units, boosting fuel economy by up to 20%. A key element in this technology's success is the ability to "throttle by wire," wherein an engine switches back and forth smoothly from eight to four and six to three cylinders without any input from the driver.

Other features will implement electronics technology for safer and more comfortable driving. Tire-pressure monitoring uses sensors that communicate with a vehicle's controller, either wirelessly or via a wire connection, to warn the driver of low and uneven tire-pressure levels. Substantial improvements in wireless remote ignition from, say, key fobs will be integrated with the car's safety and security system and become factory-installed standard features.

Advanced data-collection and advisory systems are on the horizon for the U.S. federally mandated Intelligent Highway System (IHS). The National University of Singapore (www.nus.edu.sg) will soon unveil such a computer-based system with advanced data-mining and more efficient algorithms. It will help drivers avoid traffic congestion and other problem areas. Researchers hope to have it ready by 2004 in Tokyo, Stockholm, Los Angeles, and Houston, where intelligent highway infrastructures are already in place.

GPS technology will play a vital role in the IHS by making future cars more "intelligent." Major automobile makers are working on GPS-based systems that contain all of the coordinates of traffic-light and street-sign information. This will be used to electronically and automatically slow down drivers entering "low-speed" or school zones, as well as approaching on and off highway ramps.


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