Carnegie Mellon Engineering News: Spring 2003, p. 12-13
GM’s new $8 million research grant will
help to put information technology into future vehicles in ways that could
change the industry.
Perhaps you already think of your car as a “companion.” But
when Ed Schlesinger
uses the term, he’s talking about really bringing that vehicle to
life with information technology--giving you a car that will know you
and help you, inform and entertain you, and even take care of itself like
a proper traveling companion.
is the goal of the General Motors Collaborative Research Lab at Carnegie
Mellon. Schlesinger, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering,
co-directs the lab, which was launched three years ago with a GM grant
of $3 million and is now expanding: GM has committed $8 million for the
next five years.
Projects across campus range from research on deep enabling technologies
to the building of prototype systems. Drawing from work now under way,
here’s a hypothetical look at how your drive to a meeting in a nearby
city might go in the “companion” car of the not-too-distant
future: As you slide behind the wheel, the car recognizes you. The FaceCam
system, mounted in the steering column, tells the seat, mirrors and dash
display to reconfigure from the settings your spouse or teenager used
the night before. The suspension and steering response adjust to suit
your driving style.
car also reads your destination from the calendar in your PDA and checks
traffic reports from the Web. Since the freeway is jamming up a few miles
ahead, the dash display suggests a detour. You are directed around the
jam by a dynamic map that scrolls as you drive, showing only the street
you’re on and the next turn to take, not the whole confusing street
grid. Back on the freeway, you let your eyes linger on the roadside scenery.
FaceCam notices that and generates a little rumble-strip sound to get
your attention before you drift out of your lane.
Later, at your exit ramp, another system puts an incoming phone call on
hold while you navigate some sharp curves and lane changes. Finally, approaching
the downtown office tower where your meeting will be, the car senses that
the parking garage is full. It directs you to a nearby lot where a transmitter
is signaling “spaces available.” You walk into your meeting
with time to spare.
more: The car monitors itself for mechanical and electrical problems,
and in many cases can temporarily “fix” itself well enough
to get you home safely. Moving all such things from the conceivable to
the realm of the feasible is the daily business of the GM Lab.
From Prototypes to New Business Models
getting more sophisticated,” Schlesinger says. “Our projects
are evolving and we have a better understanding of the problems.”
The FaceCam system--developed by ECE professor Tsuhan Chen, with his colleagues
and students--is now installed in one of the four GM test cars on campus,
along with other gear such as a floor-mounted GestureCam that will let
you use hand gestures to control many in-vehicle systems. On a driving
simulator, student researchers in the interdisciplinary Human-Computer
Interaction Institute have tested prototypes of the dynamic map (which
proves very easy to read) and the cell phone-interrupt system.
as systems and technologies are combined, a host of new apps become possible.
“How about a ‘teen tracker’?” asks Schlesinger.
“When your car sees that it’s your teenager driving, maybe
it won’t do certain things, like go faster than 55. Maybe it calls
you if the car is going to certain places, or tells your kid: ‘It’s
quarter to 11, time to head home.’”
GM of course will ultimately decide what kinds of features
and services it brings to market. They’ll be developed further at
GM’s own R&D center in Warren, Mich., with which the Carnegie
Mellon GM Lab partners closely. Many factors will have to be considered,
from privacy issues to the readiness of telecom infrastructure in the
world outside the car.
Through it all, Schlesinger sees a big trend emerging: “Information
technology will change the industry’s business model.” He
explains that many new IT features might include services (like travel
advisories) as part of the package. Others could be plug-in modules--like
a controller to custom-adjust suspension and handling--or just software.
“The car itself becomes a commodity, a platform for selling services
and add-ons, like a cell phone or a PC,” Schlesinger says. “You’ll
be going to the ‘car store’ in the mall every few months to
buy new things that you’d like.”
The Deeper Challenges
Not yet, however. Cars at present are not designed for constant digital-age
upgrading--either at the car store or in the factory. Thus a major research
challenge for the Carnegie Mellon GM Lab is developing an electronic infrastructure
and system architectures that are highly robust and adaptable. That will
take a lot of doing on many fronts.
For instance, an in-vehicle wireless network is a key backbone feature.
It would let you and your passengers do things like link up everyone’s
portables and handhelds, or pipe music from an MP3 player into the car’s
sound system--and upload or download anything at speeds limited only by
external networks. But how does one deploy the antennas for optimum coverage
in a car interior filled with ever-
changing configurations of people and stuff? Which wireless technology
should be used? A team headed by ECE professor Dan Stancil is exploring
these issues and learning daily.
Simply enabling engineers to design a smarter car is a challenge. Today’s
cars already are crammed with electronics for everything from fuel-injection
control to braking, and as ECE research engineer JoAnn Paul observes,
“you’ve got a lot of programmable, heterogeneous microprocessors
here.” Each has functionalities that can be embodied either in hardware
or software--a design problem from the get-go, she notes, as the two media
work and are modeled differently. It gets worse when system designers
must spec out component designs to different suppliers. The result is
an engineering Tower of Babel, with the lack of a common design language
often making it hard to know what’s going on, let alone to work
efficiently or optimize designs. Paul and ECE Professor Don Thomas are
developing an approach they call MESH (Modeling Environment for Software
and Hardware), a unifying meta-language that allows hardware/software
codesign and would make the whole design process easier and more understandable.
Yet another problem: As onboard systems grow more complex, there are more
pieces that can fail. And as ECE Professor Phil Koopman has said, “One
of the worst things an auto company can do is leave you stranded by the
side of the road.” For Koopman’s research team on dependable
embedded systems, one of the major goals is “graceful degradation.”
The idea is to design systems so that if a module malfunctions, or a mechanical
part hangs up, a fail-safe mode kicks in to get you home: perhaps other
systems or components can cover for the one that’s failed, performing
its function in a different way. (Engine stuck at full throttle? Don’t
spark every cylinder every time.)
The team’s work also has the related design goal of “graceful
upgrade.” The new, improved version of any module should plug right
into an existing system and be compatible--to avoid massive redesign,
to simplify repairs, to give car owners the option of upgrading. Basic
research in all these areas has potential applications far beyond the
automobile. In fact, such research is typically co-funded by others
as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)] along with GM. “The
beauty of the GM Lab is that it gives us a great platform for seeing if
our ideas work in the real world,” says Schlesinger. “Maybe
someday, these things we’re testing in the automotive environment
will permeate design everywhere and have impact universally. That’s
our mission from the academic point of view, and it dovetails nicely with
GM’s mission here on campus.”