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Connected to the Road

by Todd KahoJanuary 6, 2019
Connected technology and advanced driver safety systems are all the rage. Once the domain of high-end cars, in growing numbers these systems are making their way to entry-level models. Their technology is advanced and capabilities amazing.

The technology sector of the auto industry is advancing at a rapid pace. So fast, in fact, that if you blink something might be missed. New high-tech features are a key selling point in many higher-end or luxury vehicles today. It’s only logical that these new technologies launch in more expensive vehicles, because they are costly to engineer, develop, and produce. Premium platforms can more readily absorb the higher costs because they have greater profit margins.

That said, many of the advanced systems that were new to market just a year or two ago are working their way into more mainstream models. It’s simply the natural evolution of the car market. Coincidentally, many of these sophisticated on-board systems are now standard or optional features in electric, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Some of the latest electronic wizardry is targeting future autonomous transportation, or at least partial autonomous mobility. We are already seeing the first steps today. Some current production models feature automatic emergency braking to avoid an imminent collision or warn s driver if their car is drifting out of their lane. Some driver assistance systems also provide gentle steering input to keep a car centered in its lane if drifting occurs when a turn signal is not engaged.

Self-parking technology allows vehicles to parallel or head-in park without a driver touching the steering wheel, accelerator, or brakes. To accomplish this, a vehicle is equipped with sensors in the front, rear, and on the sides to determine distances to nearby objects. With that information, a car’s on-board computer can provide accurate control inputs to accomplish the parking sequence. Parking is done efficiently on the first shot, clearing the lane while saving both time and fuel.

The evolution of adding exterior cameras on vehicles began with rear-facing backup cameras. These transmit a real-time rear view to a dash-mounted display, allowing a driver to more accurately see what’s behind the vehicle. This very useful technology has filtered down to just about any car or truck with an LCD display. More advanced systems show the path a vehicle will take as the steering wheel is turned.

That was just the beginning. Cameras now proliferate in other locations on vehicles as well. The latest development places cameras on the sides of a vehicle, with some integrating eight cameras placed all around the vehicle perimeter. These provide information used in lane departure mitigation by reading lane markers and other side threats. When a lane departure is detected without a turn signal, some manufacturers alert a driver audibly and visually while others vibrate or pulse the steering wheel or seat to get a driver’s attention.

Another advantage of having cameras mounted all around the vehicle is the ability to show a birds-eye view of a car or truck on its LCD display. All camera views are stitched together to provide what can best be described as an image from a drone hovering above the vehicle. A top view image of the vehicle is superimposed in the middle. This takes back-up camera safety to a whole new level since a driver can check for pedestrians, small children, and other obstructions that might otherwise be missed from the driver’s seat. It is especially helpful in taller vehicles like trucks and SUVs.

Enabling much of the latest technology is the proliferation of LCD screens in the dash. Most of these displays are touch screen, providing increased control over various electronic functions. The goal is to provide the information and interface without it becoming a distraction to the driver, so eyes and attention aren’t diverted from the road for too long. To solve this, many systems now have a voice interface that allows the driver to push a steering wheel-mounted button and tell the car what they would like it to do, much like Apple’s Siri.

Of course, one of the first electronic functions to be integrated into LCD displays was GPS navigation. This handy function assists in driving more efficiently by suggesting the most direct or quickest route, thereby saving fuel. We’re all familiar with the way these systems adjust on the fly, redirecting a driver if you wander from the designated route by providing audible navigation prompts for getting back on track. This intelligent operation means eyes can stay on the road, an operating strategy that other ‘smart’ on-board systems would be wise to follow. Electric cars and plug-in hybrids can also find the nearest public charging station using most nav systems, a handy thing if you are driving in unfamiliar territory.

Traction control, a system that detects drive wheel spin and adjusts power and braking accordingly to keep a vehicle moving forward, has been with us for many years now. While not connected to the road in the ‘smart’ sense like the newest driver assist technologies, manufacturers are taking this concept another step with vehicle rotation and wheel speed sensors at all four wheels to keep the vehicle from spinning-out and losing control. Though there are different names for this technology, it is commonly referred to as yaw control since it detects rotation of the vehicle and applies power or braking to individual wheels as needed, thus preventing the potential for spin.

Technologies facilitating communication between vehicles and the surrounding environment hold great promise and are already being deployed to a degree. With car-to-car interaction, a driver could be alerted in advance to slippery conditions if a car ahead experiences wheel slip or traction control is activated. Two-way communication between vehicles can also be used to warn of road hazards, or by emergency vehicles to alert nearby drivers to proceed with caution or give way.

One of the most useful technologies to come out in the past few years is adaptive cruise control. This feature gauges distance to the vehicle in front when cruise control is set. If that vehicle is going slower than the set cruise speed in your vehicle, cruise speed will be reduced to match the vehicle ahead and keep a safe distance. Adaptive cruise control systems typically allow a driver to select the distance they feel is safe. Most systems will also bring your car to a complete stop and apply braking if necessary to avoid a collision or an object in the road.

This is made possible by the integration of forward-facing radar. The radar sends a signal out that bounces off vehicles or objects and is returned to the vehicle’s receiver. An on-board computer then calculates distance and closing speed to determine what appropriate actions are required. More advanced adaptive cruise control detection incorporates LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). LIDAR works much like radar but uses lasers to read distance.

In the not-too-distant future, cars will communicate with smart city infrastructures in addition to other vehicles on the road. Greater use of cellular signals for this communication plus satellite information will also be required. Work on this front is already well underway as it will be necessary for implementing both semi- and fully-autonomous vehicle operation.

All of this new and future connected technology requires considerable computing power inside the vehicle, which will add weight and require a very stout electrical system. The connected car trend has considerable momentum and is sure to advance at a rapid pace in the future. So don’t blink…or you may well mist the next big breakthrough in this fast-paced field!