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Whizzy cars, dizzy drivers

Posted: 16 Nov 2005     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

There is some kind of morbid fascination to the automotive electronics market. Its not just that the car industry combines all the worst characteristics of an electronics industry customer. Granted, many of the worlds automotive companies are essentially broke. Granted, they have single-product design cycles as long as the entire life of many Silicon Valley companies. And granted, the automotive industry has a draconian attitude to product reliability that can demand the labors of Hercules from a vendor over a single field failure. Thats not what I had in mind.

Rather, I was thinking about the way the industry uses electronics. We read every day about the enormous, and still growing, projected increase in electronics content in automobiles. We dont read what all those chips are formaybe because we wouldnt like to hear it. As often as not, all those expensive electronic systems are going into cars to mediate between the realities of nature and the childishness of human drivers. A couple of recent press briefings might illustrate the point.

Late in August, Infineon Technologies presented a fascinating panel discussion in which drive train experts described various approaches for improving the efficiency of internal-combustion-powered drive trains. The measures could only be described as heroic hybrid systems that predictively optimize the switching on and off of a gasoline engine, or compressive-ignition engine controllers that regulate valve timing and fuel injection cycle by cycle to optimize combustion.

The technology is wonderful. But lets put it in perspective. These measures are striving for a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in efficiency. Technically great, but puny compared with the fuel savings that would result from, say, enforcing a mandatory 45mph speed limit, reducing acceleration to moderate levels andmost significantlyrequiring traffic agencies to improve interchange designs and regulate traffic lights intelligently. In other words, we are rushing technology into the breech to compensate for humans refusing to do what they are perfectly capable of understanding to be necessary.

Sadly, the technology is already losing out to the foolishness. You might have noticed that the most recent round of hybrid drive trains introduced in high-end vehicles are in SUVs, where the electric motor is used to increase the performance, not to reduce inefficiency. So we will likely see the technology used to permit us to accelerate even more fiercely up to the next red light.

We at EE Times were recently invited to an admirable demonstration of a blind-spot monitoring system being developed by Valeo Raytheon Systems. By using a 25GHz analog front-end, an impressive phased-array antenna system and hefty amounts of processing power, the company is able to alert drivers to a vehicle in their blind spot that could interfere with a lane-change maneuver.

This is a technical problem entirely worthy of such a complex solution. It is not sufficient to simply send out a pulse and check for a reflection. Targets must be acquired, identified, analyzed for course and speed and categorized as to threat level. Otherwise, the level of false positives and negatives would render the system useless in many conditions.

An astounding job of radar systems design and cost reduction is doing what correctly adjusted side mirrors and proper attention on the part of the driver would do without further assistance. The system isnt intended to see the invisible. Its intended to point out what the driver has chosen, through indifference, ignorance or inattention, to ignore.

The system cant take control of the vehicle; it can only inform. And its warning symbols are at least as easy to ignore as that oncoming cement truck. The inattentive driverand statistics say the vast majority of accidents come from inattention, not invisible vehicleswill undoubtedly change lanes first and then check the warning system for confirmation of his skillful maneuvering.

We arent arguing that such superb engineering efforts are wrongthey will help. But its time for the non-engineering part of society to step up to their responsibility to behave rationally behind the wheel. The enormous amount of powerand, concomitantly, huge consumption of resourcesgranted to individuals in an industrial society brings with it a responsibility for moderation. No amount of technological triumph can compensate for our failure to accept that fact.

- Ron Wilson

EE Times




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