Ready to back out of your driveway, you put the car in reverse and press the gas. Nothing happens. You get out and find your neighbor's child on a tricycle behind the car and below your field of view. Your car was smart enough not to go.
Sound far-fetched? Not according to engineers who specialize in automotive electronics.
The development of high-speed, integrated communications systems that link what were stand-alone systems - such as the engine and braking systems - could make so-called virtual bumpers possible in five to 10 years.
Already 30% of the cost of a new car is in the electronics: the chips, wires and networks that support features ranging from automatic door locks to anti-lock brakes to airbag deployment. Today's cars have more computing power than was used in the Apollo moon landing more than 30 years ago.
And carmakers plan to pack in more. To complement existing satellite-delivered navigation, motorist-aid services, and built-in cell phones and entertainment systems, manufacturers will add everything from in-vehicle Internet access to remote maintenance services that can troubleshoot problems and identify misbehaving parts before they fail.
"Vehicles are becoming computing platforms that can access any data at any time," says Jim Colson, a distinguished engineer with IBM working on automotive electronics systems. "A zillion new information services are possible when you add network capability to the vehicle in conjunction with network capability on other devices."
As automotive electronics become more complex, car manufacturers are borrowing a page from the network industry, relying on shared networks and standard protocols to support internal communications between control systems. They're also turning to industry standards such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to support links to external systems that provide traffic, weather, entertainment and other information.
Under the hood
Today's cars have a half-dozen different proprietary networks that carry messages from control systems to the devices being operated. Until recently, each car manufacturer and car model had its own network parts. These are hardened, automotive-specific networks with ultra-reliable electronic components that can withstand vibration and operate in extreme heat and cold.
The latest trend is toward standardization so car manufacturers can save money on components and software development. "Car manufacturers across the globe are moving to standards because if they have a single network it cuts down on the number of connectors and controllers required, and it reduces design and production costs," says Dan Benjamin, an automotive research analyst with ABI.
Companies are converging on several standards for internal networks that address different speed requirements (see graphic). "There's a lot of work across all the car manufacturers to get these to be industry standards," says Dennis Bogden, director of powertrain electronics for General Motors. "If you need a high-speed data link you grab this one, and if you need a low-speed data link you grab another one. We've quit trying to have differences in this underlying technology."
At the same time carmakers are looking to extend the use of those networks to replace the spaghetti of wire used to support functions such as turning on the engine and operating lights.
"As we continue to get better data links and higher-speed data links, we're putting more information on these data links and [relying] less on hard wires," Bogden says. "That takes away from having to have wires, which cost a lot and add a lot of weight."
These networks "reduce our costs and enable us to introduce technology faster," says Martin Yagley, director of audio, telematics and driver information systems at Chrysler. "The benefit to the buyer is improved diagnostics because information on the network gets shared."
But those are just the network advances that are helping carmakers. Most of the other advances are designed to appeal to buyers.
Take built-in wireless communications. More carmakers are going wireless to support a host of new navigation and safety services.
Bluetooth is the technology of choice to support cell phones. The auto industry is developing a special profile of the Bluetooth standard - dubbed Bluetooth Handsfree 2.0 - that will link a built-in microphone in the car to any cell phone without requiring a docking station, allowing for hands-free calling.
"Every car manufacturer will have Bluetooth up and running in high volume - 200,000 units per year - within five to seven years," predicts Paul Hansen, publisher of the Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics in Portsmouth, N.H. Hansen says Bluetooth represents the first general-purpose network standard that the automotive industry has embraced.
Acura and Daimler-Chrysler are already shipping cars with Bluetooth hands-free calling devices that are integrated with navigational systems and radios. Drivers can place calls by simply saying a telephone number.. The systems can also dial numbers brought up by the car's navigation system, say for a restaurant. Calls are controlled via buttons on the dashboard and use a car's speaker system.
Seventeen car manufacturers will offer Bluetooth-based communications options in their 2005 production vehicles, according to the Telematics Research Group. This compares with seven manufacturers that offered the technology in 2004.
Longer term, car manufacturers plan to use Bluetooth to support services such as remote vehicle diagnostics, advanced safety features and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, ABI Research says.
"We're seeing a couple different [automotive information] services use Bluetooth as the data link to the service provider," says Frank Viquez, director of automotive research at ABI. "This cuts down on the hardware and service costs because the driver owns the phone and pays for the call."
But Bluetooth is only one of the technologies that are emerging to connect the computer-based car to the outside world. The rising demand for in-vehicle entertainment services has carmakers looking at everything from satellite links to Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) and Wi-Fi.
Nearly 10% of vehicles sold last year had back-seat entertainment systems, according to Telematics Research Group, which estimates that figure will rise to 25% by 2010.
On the horizon are real-time news, information and entertainment services that are integrated with in-vehicle entertainment systems. The most promising way to deliver these services is digital satellite radio. With improvements in compression techniques and smaller antennas, digital satellite also could deliver streaming video.
"The newest thing as far as wireless data is satellite radio," Viquez says. "It's one-way communications. You can't have an uplink, but the downlink is being used to offer some basic services into the vehicle."
Although the main focus of satellite is to provide entertainment services, the technology also could support car safety or navigational systems. "Satellites are going to be used to deliver a lot more capabilities," Viquez predicts. "High-definition radio receivers will start shipping in some cars next year, and advanced applications for traffic and weather have been demonstrated. That wouldn't be hard to integrate with a telematics or navigational system."
Another technology that could bring high-speed, two-way communications to automobiles is DSRC. DSRC was designed specifically for the transportation industry to complement cellular communications, supporting 6M to 54M bit/sec wireless data transfer rates. Mercedes-Benz has started shipping cars with DSRC support in Germany.
"They have a DSRC toll-collection system in Germany that is launching full scale in January.," Viquez says. "Any car that is made for that market is going to have DSRC." DSRC ultimately could support high-speed downloads of files and music, he says.
Further out on the horizon is in-vehicle support for Wi-Fi technology. "By around 2006, some car manufacturers will be looking to install self-contained Wi-Fi to allow users to load music and files into the car," Viquez says. "With 20G or 40G of hard disk in the car, this is something manufacturers can do without offering any services. Users could download files and other content to the car such as traffic reports or news."
Then gas stations could install hot spots and start offering new information services to drivers. "You could update your navigational maps in your car based on current construction maps as part of your gas station experience," Colson says.
"We're trying to develop a user-friendly interface so customers using their home entertainment systems can seamlessly download content into their vehicles," Yagley says. "The vision with Wi-Fi is that you'd have a router in your garage for downloading media or content. "
And some day dealers might use Wi-Fi to siphon diagnostics information out of cars.
But use of Wi-Fi for Internet access while cars are in motion is still just a pipe dream today. You'd need to have Wi-Fi hot spots along the highway, Yagley says. That won't happen anytime soon.
Keeping drivers, passengers safe
Of course the wireless communications links aren't just for fun. Carmakers look to the technologies to support information services for areas such as safety, maintenance and navigation.
At the forefront is General Motor's OnStar service, which provides two-way voice and data communications to vehicles to handle requests for roadside assistance, remote diagnostics and driving directions. OnStar can, for example, unlock doors, track stolen cars, check a car's engine and even detect if an airbag has been deployed and dispatch emergency teams.
All new GM vehicles come with OnStar and one year of free service. A rival service from ATX Technologies is available in vehicles from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Similar technologies might some day make it possible for car dealers to offer remote monitoring services that help preempt breakdowns. Today services such as NetworkCar are available for managers of car fleets, which lets them run regular diagnostic tests, monitor miles per gallon, check odometers to schedule preventive maintenance and even identify cars that haven't been used much.
"Where the future is headed is safety-oriented diagnostics," Bogden says. "We could end up offering remote diagnostics, where OnStar could prompt you to run certain diagnostics on the vehicle or tell you what to do if you're getting trouble codes. It could tell you to pull the car over even if you don't see anything wrong with it."
Increasingly, GM expects to link OnStar to a car's internal control systems. OnStar's navigational system might tell the car it will soon head up a hill or around a corner, in which case the car's control system might automatically shift the transmission.
"In the future, we'll be bringing information from the outside world into the car," Bogden says. "Today, a car's navigational system can tell if it's sitting in traffic and it can try to adjust the idle speed of the engine to help the fuel economy. It's not a big deal, but it's a first test of how we can start using some of this [external] information inside the car."
The communications systems behind information services like OnStar are migrating from analog to digital in conjunction with a similar migration going on in the cellular industry.
"Analog networks will be phased out by 2008," Viquez says. "OnStar started migrating their hardware late last year to be both analog and digital capable. We're figuring that, by this time next year, they'll have an all-digital strategy."
The OnStar and ATX systems show the promise of telematics, two-way data communications systems being developed for applications such as traffic management. With these systems, cars would have sensors that communicate with roadside sensors for sharing information such as traffic reports.
Telematics systems require massive infrastructures to be built, and it's not clear what the economics are for building that out. For traffic management applications, a government agency would need to install sensors on roads that track traffic patterns and communicate with cars to re-route vehicles.
Even further out is car-to-car communications, through which sensors on one car could relay messages to sensors on another car about traffic. It's conceivable that cars could automatically adjust speed and direction to prevent accidents based on information they receive from each other.
"The future is not car-to-roadside communications, but car-to-car communications. If you think of each car as a network probe, the car knows how fast it's going and where it is," Hansen says. "In an anti-collision application, a car that slows down to zero could transmit that information backwards to vehicles coming up behind so they can slow down, too."
Another mobile device
With all of these new communications technologies, automobiles are likely to become just another mobile device, albeit more mobile than most.
"Fifty million vehicles are manufactured, and those 'devices' desire to be connected to the network for a variety of reasons," Colson says. "With OnStar, you see the ability to have a call center provide a vehicle with additional data center support. You'll see more and more of that."
Other advances that Colson sees are the use of natural language communications between the driver and the car, advanced diagnostics capabilities, real-time traffic and navigational information available from multiple sources, and new types of displays that require more powerful processors.
"We're doing some of the same things in cars that we do on desktops," Colson says.
As exciting as these developments are, they come at a cost. "The downside to all the networking in the vehicle is the rising complexity of the electronics," Hansen says.
"If you take the control systems that are operating independently and connect them, you have an exponentially greater chance of reliability problems as they interact with each other. That's the rub. Electronic complexity and quality do not correlate well," Hansen adds.