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Sensors to give 'sight' to future cars

Posted: 23 Jul 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:sensor? future cars? automotive sight?

Cars of the future will be equipped with a broad range of sensors, enabling them to "see" what comes ahead. While the integration of additional electronics serves the need for safety, it can also create security problems. At the 11th Automobil Elektronik congress in Germany, auto makers discussed the trends!and the options they have.

Cars are learning how to see and to recognize their ambience: Things like forward-looking radar that recognizes obstacles in the direction of motion, or rear-view IR sensors as a parking aid, are already reality.

Cars that see
Future cars will have more visual intelligence on board. If everything goes like Volkswagen researcher Will Specks presented at the congress, future vehicles will be equipped with cameras that enable them to see!and literally recognize what they see. For instance, an image processing software connected to the camera will be able to recognize traffic signs and issue a warning accordingly!visually at the instrument panel as well as acoustically. "Our aim is teaching cars to see," said Specks, manager at Volkswagen's central electronics research labs. "The ability of cars to orientate itself in the traffic with the same senses like human beings is a key to the next-generation driver assistance systems."

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Volkswagen was the one that presented on this topic: In the last Darpa Grand Challenge in 2005, a modified Volkswagen Touareg dubbed Stanley won the race over more than 200km through the Mojave desert!unmanned and autonomously, of course.

Now the company plans to feed its research results into the design of everyday cars. Specks showed what applications the Volkswagen research labs are working at. For instance, headlight illumination can be distributed according to the actual needs: If another car appears in the range of the headlights, the cone of light can be reshaped in order avoid dazzling the other car's driver. The action will be done automatically by a software, based on the signals of a camera.

Temperature sensing
Another topic Volkswagen is working on is automatic recognition of pedestrians. In order to discriminate a living being from an inanimate obstacle, Volkswagen uses IR cameras that detect temperature differences. Another project uses stereo cameras that produce true 3D pictures. With the signals from the cameras, a computer recognizes pedestrians, discriminates them form other types of obstacles and uses the results for determining a collision avoidance strategy.

In order to implement these features in the future driver assistance systems, existing automotive electronics architectures have to me modified. The architecture has to be enabled to transport and process large amounts of data at high speeds, said Specks. "We need a functional system architecture which is independent of the physical implementation," the researcher explained. The functional design the company is aiming at will enable what Specks calls a "sensor data fusion as a universal data base for all driver assistance systems."

As a precondition for the implementation, Specks demanded for standardized interfaces within the functional architecture (which is proprietary to the car maker) as well as at the module and control computer level. The latter is subject to be defined by future releases of Autosar software standard. Specks even expressed his point of view that an integrated tool-supported design methodology based on time-triggered architectures would be necessary to achieve the goals depicted.

At the congress, another Volkswagen researcher acted in a certain way as Specks' antagonist: Karsten Michels brought up the concerns and problems the company sees when it comes to integrating consumer devices into the vehicle's electronic environment.

Since video cameras, video processing and external navigation systems are largely based on consumer technology, Michels' concerns are relevant to the projects driven by Specks. Data streams from cameras and navigation systems that are fed into the car's internal processing schemes would certainly create potential security threads. From Volkswagen's perspective, even a third-party after-sales software for certain in-car appliances could be "a seminal business," as Michels put it, but he admitted that such a scenario would lead to security problems.

"We want to be able to use consumer electronics' market speed for the automotive sector, but security has to be guaranteed," said Michels. In order to make sure faulty or misbehaving software cannot affect critical car parts, Volkswagen is considering a double security system, consisting of a firewall and a sandbox concept that creates a virtual environment for any external electronic device.

Security aspect
Security, however, is not the only problem when it comes to integrating consumer devices such as navigation systems, mobile phones and digital music players. The sheer number of types and variations makes it impossible to include them all into the list of car-based support devices from cradles to handfree sets!a fact that frequently sparks irritation among car drivers, as Michels admitted.

Another problem is that the embedded software consumer devices is by far not as fault-free as car manufacturers are used to. This fact regularly creates reliability conflicts. However, the problem seems beyond the sphere of the car designers. "The reliability problem cannot be solved by motivating the handset manufacturers to ship only fault-free devices," stated Michels.

Another problem in this context is that the user interfaces of consumer devices and car typically are not consistent, which could create driver distraction problems, said Michels. But at least for this problem, a solution approach is in sight. "OEMs could include a browser in their HMI which could map the consumer device's functionality," Michels explained.

- Christoph Hammerschmidt
EE Times Europe

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