Cars That Drive Themselves

Imagine this, George Jetson: You hop in your car and, instead of driving to work, it drives you to work. Along the way, you catch up on your emails, watch videos on the dash-mounted screen, make phone calls or even do something archaic, like a crossword puzzle. You might even catch a few winks of much-needed sleep. All the while, your car drives you swiftly, silently and safely to your destination.

Think that's just a pipedream? Well, think again. That scenario is rapidly becoming not just a possibility, but a probability. And besides the obvious advantages to such new age technology, there are others as well. Safety is one.  The chance to do something real about traffic congestion is another.

So how are we going to get there? One hint, interestingly enough, comes from the world of the once much-maligned "military-industrial complex." Of course, that is the same group of disciplines that have given us such useful consumer products as satellite TV. Over the last several years the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored what it calls the "Grand Challenge," pitting unmanned, full-size vehicles against one another in a race over a very challenging course.

Volkswagen won the $2 million grand prize at the most recent 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge with a diesel-powered Touareg SUV named "Stanley."  (Naming the vehicles is optional.) Stanley defeated 22 other unmanned vehicles in a rigorous, 132-mile championship race over rough desert roads, mountain trails, dry lake beds and tunnels, using only onboard sensors and navigation equipment to guide it. Stanley performed flawlessly and achieved victory after six hours, thirty-five minutes. It never stopped to go to the bathroom, either.

Now, Volkswagen of America has announced that its Electronics Research Lab (ERL) and the Stanford University Racing Team will participate in this year's DARPA Urban Challenge on November 3. In that event an autonomously-driven diesel-powered Passat wagon, named "Junior" (in homage to Leland Stanford Jr., founder of Stanford University), will compete against a variety of other contenders on a 60-mile mock-urban course that will involve merging with traffic, crossing traffic circles and negotiating busy intersections while following traffic laws, which is more than many drivers do normally.

"We see an opportunity to further advance intelligent technologies for use in passenger vehicles of the future," said Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, director of VW's Electronics Research Laboratory. "The features developed for the Urban Challenge will ultimately benefit our customers by making driving safer and more enjoyable in today's increasingly dense traffic."

Autonomous driving is an important topic for Volkswagen Research. The last decade has seen several driver assistance systems come to market that improve vehicle handling and control in challenging driving situations. Driver-assistance systems, such as Electronic Stability control, Electronic Parking Assistance and Adaptive Cruise Control, have all been designed and implemented to make the task of driving safer, easier and more enjoyable. Each of these systems assumes some degree of vehicle control but does not take full charge of the vehicle.        

"While fully autonomous driving may be a possibility for the future, it is not Volkswagen's intent to replace the driver," said Huhnke. "By pursuing a stretch goal, such as an autonomously driven vehicle, we are able to advance certain aspects that will be of use in more conventional and current driver assistance and safety systems."

For this year's DARPA Urban Challenge, Volkswagen of America's ERL helped outfit the fuel-efficient Passat wagon TDI (diesel) with computer-controlled electromechanical power steering and electric throttle, gear shifter and parking brake. Custom mountings for the wide array of sophisticated sensors were also designed and built at ERL. Intel Core 2 Duo processors, with multiple processing units per chip, make up the car's "brains." Together with the software developed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, the car will be truly autonomous.

While it is easy to imagine the military applications of autonomous vehicles in hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also easy to envision civilian applications. Computer-controlled vehicles that are aware of not only of where they are, but of the vehicles around them through "talk-back" technology, could travel safely in much closer proximity to other vehicles than is possible with today's human-piloted cars, something which could have very positive effects on traffic congestion. And "driver-error" might largely be eliminated from accident statistics.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

The Airbag Two Decades Later

There was a time when the automotive airbag was as hotly debated as the contribution by humans to global warming is today. Three decades ago, many safety advocates were gung ho to introduce the airbag, but most automobile manufacturers fought the idea, fearing that extra cost of the airbags plus potential misfires would decrease profits. And some auto safety engineers were concerned that the installation of airbags would discourage drivers and passengers from using safety belts, the most effective kind of safety restraint.

The debate raged for a decade before Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole, a Ronald Reagan appointee, issued a mandate in 1984 requiring airbags or automatically deployed seat belts in passenger cars beginning in 1990. This sent many companies scurrying to the drawing board and in many instances their solutions were the soon-to-be-much-hated motorized seatbelts that made entering a car a gymnastic exercise.

Fortunately, some car companies took another tack. One of the leaders was Volvo, which had helped establish its safety leadership position by, among other things, inventing the now-ubiquitous three-point seat belt. By the mid-Eighties, Volvo had worked with airbags and automatic seat belts for many years. As early as the 1970s, Volvo engineers experimented with airbags as a way of reducing fatalities, even producing a fleet of cars with airbags as part of their research.

As the U.S. Department of Transportation neared its recommendation on airbags and automatic seatbelts in 1984, Volvo established a project team of engineers, system developers and suppliers to begin its first Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) project. The term was chosen quite deliberately because Volvo and other manufacturers wanted to make it clear to consumers that the airbag systems are designed to supplement seat belts, not replace them. Throughout the process, analysis and component testing were implemented to minute detail. Volvo designed the shape and size of the crucial gas-generation tablets, which provide for proper gas production using a sodium azide (NaN3) chemical mix. A screen filter helped maintain a proper balance of gases and helped collect the inert, but very hot, residue within the gas generator, not in the bag itself where it could harm passengers who came in contact with it. Facilitating deployment of the apparatus, the company worked with the igniters and bags as well as the weavers of the fabric and the manufactures of the yarn.

Bosch, the supplier for the electronics, combined with Volvo to develop a unique piezo electric sensing device. Most mechanical sensors of the time were located in the bumper area. This new technology enabled a system where the sensor could be positioned inside of the vehicle under the driver's seat. The sensor mechanism was shorter and the cables and connectors were better protected. (Volvo uses much the same concept today, but the sensor is now positioned behind the gearshift lever.) Volvo rolled out its airbag-fitted production model in 1987, three years ahead of U.S. law.

Automotive airbags quickly became a successful safety device, but they also gained some negative publicity when some children and smaller adults were killed by airbag deployments, some in non-life-threatening situations. In 1999, Volvo continued to lead the field by installing a new generation of airbags that addressed that issue. These devices, now known in the industry as "smart airbags," sense such things as body weight, speed at impact and impact angle, to adjust the force of airbag deployment automatically. These "smart bags" offer yet another level of protection above conventional bags by automatically sensing when to step down the force of impact, thereby reducing the risk to the vehicle's most important cargo -- the people riding inside the car. Volvo cars are currently equipped with a dual threshold system based on impact position relative to the part of the body being protected.

Airbag technology and the safety systems in general have evolved to not only include driver and passenger front airbags, but various forms of rear-seat passenger, side-impact and roll-over protection as well. These sophisticated systems constantly monitor a variety of data, preparing to protect the motorist for an impact which, in the life of most motorists, never occurs. But, because you never know when such an incident might occur, always buckle your seat belt.

Hard-Drive Cars Coming

There are some hard-driving automotive industry executives who will tell you that the future of the automobile lies in vehicles equipped with hard drives. In the United States, Chrysler is leading the way with the innovative MyGIG information and entertainment system, but around the world other manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon. While providing convenient storage space like cubbies, consoles and cup holders was once where the competitive battle was won or lost, soon the same battle will be joined in terms of vehicles' data storage system. We're not far from the day when cars will not only have audio and video entertainment systems, but computer storage system will allow them to carry full music and movie libraries. 

Vehicles have had CD players for more than two decades and more recently, DVD has come on the scene. But the future seems to reside with hard-disk storage, the preferred method of data storage and access for personal computers and flash memory, the "solid state" storage system often used in MP3 music players like iPod's Nano and Shuffle.

Consider, if you will, the features of the multi-faceted infotainment unit in the 2007 Chrysler Sebring. The Harmon/Kardon information, entertainment and safety navigation audio system features a 6.5-inch Thin Film Transistor (TFT) display with a touch-screen panel that can support 65,000 colors, providing a three-dimensional appearance to graphics and animation capability, as well as multiple font sizes and styles. The system follows voice-activated commands and includes features for music, sound, movies and personalized picture displays. At its heart is a 20-gigabyte hard disc drive that includes Music Juke Box for organizing music and pictures. Music, photos and movies can be loaded to the unit via a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection that provides both MP3 connectivity and downloading of WMA, MP3 and JPEG files onto the hard drive. To make things even simpler, GraceNotes databasing is installed on the hard drive, providing song identification, including title, composer, artist and the system offers playlist creation capability to provide easy access to songs and other files.

Tired of listening to others? You can record yourself with voice memo recording. This allows a message (or song) of up to three-minutes long to be recorded using the microphone integrated into the rearview mirror. And if you tire of even listening to yourself, you can view movies when the car is in park on the multi-use navigation screen. So now your favorite drive-in movie can be anywhere you drive.

Automotive experts expect the market for such systems to grow exponentially in the next few years as consumers seek the functionality they enjoy with personal computers in their vehicle. Toshiba Corporation has already shipped more than four million automotive-grade hard drives, primarily for aftermarket installations. Telematics Research Group, Inc. (TRG) says there are 75 automotive models globally that will have factory-installed HDD systems in the coming months. More than a dozen of those are expected to be sold in North America.

So be prepared for endless runs and re-runs of "SpongeBob SquarePants" off your vehicle's hard-drive. You can take also take solace in the fact that you can have every record you ever owned aboard your car.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the automotive industry, popular and unpopular entertainment and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Traffic Info Now, When You Need It

There was a time when the typical metropolitan radio station that wanted to offer "traffic reports" hired a helicopter pilot and sent him into the air to do the task as best as possible. The information was haphazard at best and often delivered well after it could do any good.

Well, that was then. Now one of the largest radio station chains in the country, Clear Channel Radio, has turned its Total Traffic Network into a juggernaut that provides real-time traffic information in 49 cities, with information gleaned from its own airplanes, helicopters and ground-based reporters, plus automated sensors. And its capabilities just got bigger with the introduction of traffic speed data from Inrix's Smart Dust Network, which combines the largest GPS-enabled vehicle probe network in the world with speed information garnered from conventional road sensors and numerous other sources.

Two basic kinds of data go into the traffic reporting and predicting business. The reporting of traffic incidents, most often accidents but also stalls and weather-related road closures, is one of the key pair; the other is real-time speed data, which indicates how fast traffic is flowing on various metropolitan arteries. The addition of the Inrix data is expected to enhance that portion of the offering substantially.

Clear Channel will begin delivering the enhanced real-time traffic information via its Total Traffic Network in U.S. cities beginning in March, and testing is going on as we write this. The integration of the new data is expected to enable Clear Channel's automotive and portable navigation customers to provide higher quality, traffic-influenced dynamic routing and traffic congestion maps incorporating the broadest coverage of speed information available anywhere, except maybe in heaven. Companies such as BMW, Garmin, Tom Tom, Mio/Mitac, NAVIGON, Cobra Electronics, Siemens VDO and others currently use the Clear Channel service.

Total Traffic Network currently deploys select Inrix real-time speed data, derived from traditional road sensors, in a dozen U.S. markets. With the new enhanced relationship between the two companies, Total Traffic Network is significantly expanding its real-time speed market coverage by leveraging the Smart Dust Network, which combines anonymous speed and flow information from traditional road sensors, toll tags and more than 625,000 commercial fleet vehicles, delivery trucks and taxis across the United States. Total Traffic Network now has immediate access to real-time flow information from Inrix in 92 metropolitan markets, representing more than five times the coverage of conventional road sensor networks.

In all, the Total Traffic Network now serves more than 130 metropolitan markets in three countries, including the United States, Mexico and New Zealand, though not all of them use the Inrix data. All of this is largely invisible to consumers, but consumers can tap into the information by using a navigation device from a manufacturer affiliated with the company. More information is available at the Total Traffic Network Web site.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France. Lucky for him, he's largely immune to traffic.

Bright Lights, Big Quality

If you can't let the sunshine in, then duplicating sunshine in the laboratory is a good way to improve your vehicle quality. At least that is the contention of Ford Motor Company. With a blinding 6,000 watts of electrical energy and 270 additional spotlights and floodlights, Ford engineers have developed a laboratory that simulates the various phases of the earth's revolution around the sun with the flip of a switch.

The Visual Performance Evaluation Lab (VPEL) was created to replicate sunlight conditions from dawn to dusk. Why go to all this trouble? Because a car's interior can look different depending on sun conditions. The VPEL gives technicians a controlled environment in which to test vehicle interior instruments, controls and other components to verify that they are lit properly and legible when they are on the road, no matter the sun's angle or intensity.

"The VPEL allows us to see how various interior components would work under different sunload conditions, meaning clear sky, overcast sky , dusk and dawn," said Mahendra Dassanayake, staff technical specialist, who was primarily responsible for developing this innovative lighting facility. "Under different conditions, the way the vehicle interior presents to the customer changes and the level of comfort changes. We want to create a very user-friendly situation inside the vehicle to minimize distractions."

The VPEL, a new addition to Ford's Product Design Center, has already proven to be of invaluable to the team of people who design illuminated car interior components like switches, clusters, climate controls, navigations systems, radios and rear entertainment systems. When the lab is in use, a car or component is placed in the middle of what looks like a gigantic circular space. At the flip of a switch, four huge 1,500-watt lights mounted onto a steel arm power up. One end of the arm connects to the ceiling. The other end sits on wheels on the floor. By physically pushing the arm to specific points around the circle's edge and adjusting the spotlights and floodlights in the ceiling, the studio can simulate light conditions at every time of day from sunrise to sunset. Additional adjustments are made to simulate and study the effects of weather conditions, for instance a staff member might smoke a pipe to simulate fog.

Prior to the development of the VPEL, the lighting team did the bulk of its testing by taking cars out on the road under different sky conditions to try and evaluate interior components and identify potential problems like washouts. But that kind of testing was as variable as the weather. According to Dassanayake and Mark Larry, display technology engineer in the Electrical and Electronics Systems Engineering Interior Harmony activity, the VPEL will afford designers and technicians the unique opportunity to test components at a much earlier stage of development.

"Designers can bring in clay models to do up-front assessments in high ambient light conditions or sun wash-out conditions," said Larry. "They can bring in components in their early stages. If we find that we're having issues with components that are already in production, we can bring them in a take a look at them at the component level. We can also do full vehicle level testing."

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes on a wide variety of auto-related issues.