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December 9, 2012

Posted by daleklein in Mobility.

Mobility Challenges and Opportunities – “Smart Cars”

What once was a product of man’s imagination just ten to fifteen years ago, a vision of what tomorrow’s technology should yield has quickly advanced into the beginning steps of transforming dreams into reality and releasing them to the general public.

We have seen rapid advances in cell phone technology were they are no longer just a wireless phone used for vocal communication.  The advances in technology have morphed them from a cell phone into a smartphone.  They are literally a small portable computer that uses GPS for location-based services, are capable of linking to the internet, have integrated web cams for video chats, some use voice recognition software interfaces and are able to run numerous computing applications.  These same capabilities have been extended to the automotive world as an infrastructure to expand into the world of tomorrow. This transfer has given rise to a new era of “smart cars” which we will look at the technology that exists, the direction and future opportunities that researchers are exploring and the challenges to achieving these grand visions.

Computers have become an integral part of our everyday lives but the man to machine interface requires human interaction that is responsible for the understanding, or a lack of understanding, of the data they are inputting.  To overcome the complete reliance on human perception for data gave rise to the field of sentient computing. Sentient computing is a form of ubiquitous computing which utilizes sensors to perceive its environment which allows applications to be more responsive and react to the sensor data.  A lot of the current technologies revolve around sentient computing in order to assist us in our daily routines.  One of those technologies employed by Toyota and Ford is the Active Park Assist.  Ford employees a quicker and less costly system which we will describe.  A driver activates the system by pressing a switch.  The system then uses ultrasonic sensors that measure and identify an empty space of reasonable size.  The system will ask the driver to accept its assistance.  Once accepted the steering controls are controlled by the computer and it parks the car hands free.  The driver retains control of the gas and braking pedals.  Audible and visual notifications alert the driver about its proximity to other vehicles or objects.  The driver is still in control but the sensors allow for quicker and more accurate decision making than the drivers. [1] I know I have never been a fan of parallel parking since it’s a guessing game that can take multiple attempts to fit your vehicle into a parking space.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration there were more than 100,000 crashes related to drivers driving drowsy.  The crashes are linked to 40,000 injuries and over 1500 fatalities annually.  To help combat those statistics automakers have been implementing crash-avoidance technologies which are being offered in a growing number of vehicles. [2] This is no substitute for common sense but it’ll provide a little bit of a guardian angel effect when you do drive.

The term “crash-avoidance technology” covers a variety of applications: adaptive headlights which are designed to help improve night vision around corners and curves and available by many of the luxury vehicle automakers such as BMW, Mercedes, Audi, etc. It works off of sensors that measure speed, steering angle and the degree of rotation around a vertical axis known as yaw.  The sensors send signals to small electric motors that adjust the beams to the left or right to maintain them on the road ahead.  Another application is forward collision-warning which uses sensors such as cameras, radar or a technology called light detection and ranging (LIDAR) to detect vehicles in front of the vehicle. Some systems also have automatic braking which it starts to apply when a collision is pending. [2]  One car commercial shows this applied to a vehicle that has a back-up camera but did not immediately see a kid dart behind the vehicle but was detected by sensors and applied brakes before the driver reacted.

The following are two examples stay-alert systems currently deployed.  Ford has a Lane Keeping System that uses a small forward facing camera.  It can identify the lane markings on both sides of the road.  While the vehicle is in motion the system scans ahead and predicts where the vehicle should be measured against actual markings.  A warning chime sounds if there’s a discrepancy and a symbol lights up on the dashboard.  Failure to respond initiates an additional chime warning.  Mercedes-Benz has an Attention Assist system that gathers data about a driver during the first minutes of driving.  The system creates a profile and signals an alert chime when there’s a deviation from the profile. [2]

We’re already starting to see separate threads of an autonomous-car future being weaved into current real-world tests.  Within a few short years autonomous vehicles will be able to brake and change lanes on their own in order to avoid collisions or alter routes to avoid adding to a developing traffic congestion.  The systems should be able to communicate with one another so that when actions are taken it can alert other vehicles in the nearby vicinity.  The U.S. Transportation Department is promoting the development of an advanced Wi-Fi known as dedicated short range communications or DSRC.  The DSRC could provide a universal electronic toll system as well as coordinate signal lights in real time for improved traffic flow. [3]

Toyota Motor Corporation is currently working on testing a car safety system which is predicated on vehicles being able to communicate with each other.  They are using a newly completed test facility the size of three baseball stadiums to test the Intelligent Transport System.  The cars receive information from sensors and transmitters that are installed on the streets.  The objective is to minimize the risk of accidents from a vehicle missing a red traffic light, cars that advance from your blind spot or pedestrians crossing a street.  The system allows cars to transmit information to one another. “Toyota has also developed sonar sensors that help drivers avoid crashing in parking lots. One system even knows when the driver pushes on the gas pedal by mistake instead of the brakes, and will stop automatically.”[4]

A more recent form of vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) is currently being tested in Ann Arbor.  Vehicles are allowed to share situational data to avoid crashing into each other. V2V communication would allow vehicles to share their position, destination and intended route with a central station. [5]

In Europe, Volvo is testing a concept of using “road trains” to allow for more efficient driving.  A line of vehicles traveling close together, much like a NASCAR race, would allow for higher throughputs and an increase in fuel savings due to the utilization of drafting.  The lead vehicle acts as the master unit and the slave units parrot the movements and actions of the lead vehicle. [5]

Many of the challenges faced for “smart cars” are the same as those faced by smart phone communication networks.  Vehicle networks are unique in that the information conveyed over a vehicular network may affect life-or-death decision; therefore security is of the highest importance.  In an early work entitled “Challenges in Securing Vehicular Networks” they identified several network challenges.  The first was authentication versus privacy.  By binding a driver to a single identity they can reduce the probability of various spoofing attacks. Another challenge identified was availability.  Vehicle networks rely on near real-time responses which can make applications vulnerable to Denial of Service attacks.  Another challenge is a low tolerance of errors.  Decisions made can easily involve life or death situations which means there needs to be a nearly zero level of error. [6]

These are just a few of the technical challenges.  Given that there are multiple automakers and they all sell their vehicles globally we need to consider that they may not all agree on the same solutions and not all solutions may address all infrastructures.  A system in the US may not be the same as in Europe.

I believe that the end goal is to move closer and closer to an autonomous system but the use of some forms of driver assisted systems is the use of baby steps.  It does not represent baby steps from the perspective of technology but rather the psychological perspective of acceptance.  By having the driver still retain primary control but relinquishing some of it to the computing system, the comfort zone of end users has been shifted and as it becomes the norm for the masses, then you have established a new baseline from which to start the process all over again.  Wide-spread acceptance is probably the greatest challenge in this area.


[1] Active Park Assist – Ford, http://media.ford.com/images/10031/APA_Toyota.pdf

[2] Crash-Avoidance Technology Can Help, but Won’t Replace Rest, Jan 1, 2012,    http://www.edmunds.com/car-safety/technology-aimed-at-helping-drowsy-drivers-stay-awake.html

[3] Ford, GM, Tech Firms Driving To ‘Smart’ Car Era, April 7, 2011, http://news.investors.com/technology/040711-568445-ford-gm-tech-firms-driving-to-smart-car-era.htm#ixzz2C1RCRWVZ\” data-mce-href=

[4] Toyota Smart-Car Technology Let Autos ‘Talk’ To Each Other, Sense Pedestrians and Red Lights, Nov. 12,2012,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/toyota-smart-car-technology_n_2115570.html?utm_hp_ref=technology

[5] You won’t need a driver’s license by 2040, Nov. 18, 2012, Wired magazine.

[6] Challenges in Securing Vehicular Networks, B. Parno, A. Perrig,



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