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Auto Mechatronics' ultimate goal: Driverless cars

Posted: 10 Jul 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mechatronics  automotive electronics  driverless car 

May it be in movies or the real world, mechatronics?the melding of electronics, mechanics, computers and control engineering?have spawned lifelike robots that can navigate and gather intelligence autonomously.

Once dismissed as a fad, mechatronics has fulfilled its promise of smart autonomous electromechanical systems, used both in NASA's Rover, searching for signs of life on Mars, and in the modern car. The latter has been transformed into a vehicle of "robotic manipulators"?from antilock brakes to antiskid control to collision avoidance and, eventually, driverless cars.

"You can call us autobots, for short," said so said Optimus Prime, the "good guy" robot in the Transformers movie. But autobotsis also a fitting moniker for the ultimate goal of automotive mechatronics: driverless cars.

"Autonomous vehicle technology is the logical upgrade path for active safety electronics, in which the sensors and algorithms predict accidents and actively avoid them within the physical and dynamic limitations of the vehicle," said Michael Williams, research VP for semiconductors, automotive and telematics technology at Gartner Dataquest. "In terms of early driverless passenger car applications, we expect to see convenience applications, such as self-parking cars and self-valet retrieval applications, emerging first."

Even though many of today's most futuristic applications were enabled by mechatronics?like the Rover?most applications are more mundane. They include washing machines that don't ask how big the load is but, instead, measure it with a sensor.

Nevertheless, the pinnacle of mechatronics design is exemplified by the manipulators of industrial robots, such as those that build cars, and in the cars themselves. Indeed, on-board mechatronic servos eventually will allow cars to drive themselves.

"Several robotics companies have tried building transformer-like modules from which you can pick and choose to create your robotic manipulators," said professor William Hamel at the University of Tennessee. "This very elegant tool kit approach is just one step behind what a transformer is."

Safety feature
Mechatronics originated in Japan, where it has inspired a generation of both real science and science fiction?from a burgeoning robotics industry using mechatronic manipulators to Transformers. The movie is a fitting tribute to modern mechatronics, because of its articulated robotic manipulators and self-driving cars, which reflect today's most compelling applications.

"Mechatronics advances in robotic manipulator design and control are particularly strong, since you are dealing with an articulated mechanism with very compact features, but with fairly high payload requirements, and, on the electronics side, you have active servos on every joint," said Hamel.

The robots that build cars use these mechatronic robotic manipulators, ironically, to build mechatronic vehicles. And mechatronics in cars is following the predictable path blazed by the airline industry?from flight assistance, such as auto-altitude adjustment, to autopilots, which can take off and land without the help of a human.

Williams noted, "The autonomous vehicle will deploy several sensors and many electronic sub-systems that will start, drive, steer, navigate, brake and stop the vehicle. In the mainstream passenger car markets, we expect to see this technology being exploited as a safety feature, for driver assistance and driver support, rather than completely taking over the driver function yet."

Wider scope
There is now a worldwide push is on to bring mechatronics into every design. Yet the modern car remains the technology's best example. One of the first sub-systems to be automated was the formerly purely mechanical carburetor, which now uses a computer-controlled fuel injector.

During cold-engine start-up, automated fuel injectors adjust fuel-air mixtures in real-time. Mechatronics didn't just add motorised controllers to a carburetor?like the automated tape drive?but used new materials, the fuel injectors, to handle the old functions better.

Nearly every aspect of mechanical devices are being modernised with varying degrees of mechatronics?usually embedding microcontrollers to read sensors, then consulting their preprogramming and responding by actuating the servos that formerly reacted to mechanical timing signals.

In cars, the last frontier is "drive by wire," in which steering is automated, effectively allowing a computer to drive.

"Many drivers do not even realise that drive-by-wire technology is built in; for instance, almost all hybrid electric vehicles deploy drive-by-wire technologies because of the needs of the hybrid synergy drive," said Williams.

Automotive OEMs that have introduced drive-by-wire technology include BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Jaguar, Volvo, Subaru, Lexus, Volkswagen and Toyota.

Besides outperforming purely mechanical components and sub-systems, mechatronics offers easy reprogrammability to refine functionality as well as capabilities, such as automated parallel parking, impossible for purely mechanical devices. New product categories also have been defined by mechatronics: from the seminal disc drive to digital-light processors to microelectromechanical systems.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

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