The Connected Car Addresses Congestion and Safety Challenges

Stephen Keeping, Mouser Electronics

We’re devoting an increasing proportion of our lives to the road. The average American spends ten percent of their waking time (some 600 hours a year) behind the wheel.

Worse yet, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, U.S. commuters waste 38 hours per year stuck in traffic. In Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, the situation is even more serious with drivers squandering 67 and 61 hours, respectively, staring at the license plate of the stationary vehicle in front of them.

The problems don’t stop with lost man-hours. Traffic congestion burns fuel (2.9 billion gallons per year in the U.S.) and adds to atmospheric greenhouse gases (to the tune of 56 billion pounds of CO2 each year.) Wasted fuel and lost work time cost the U.S. an estimated $124 billion in 2013 according to a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research and INRIX.

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Figure 1: Traffic congestion cost the U.S. nearly $124 billion in wasted fuel and lost work hours during 2013.

Automotive makers work continuously to address these challenges. Cars have become comfortable cocoons due to sound insulation, supportive seats, and air conditioning; accidents are more survivable thanks to innovations such as anti-lock brakes, airbags, and crumple zones, and drivers are able to ease the tedium of congestion by accessing in-car entertainment ranging from digital-radio broadcasts to music from their smartphone and backseat video from in-seat DVD players.

And in recent years, in-car systems have been supplemented by Internet connectivity. That connectivity has allowed drivers and passengers to remain “plugged in” to the business and social networks they take for granted when at home or in the office, turning hours stuck in traffic into productive time.

But what if Internet connectivity could be taken a stage further? What if the most modest temperature sensor all the way up to the engine management unit and satellite navigation could send and receive information via the Internet without the involvement of the driver or passengers? Such connectivity could further enhance the safety and comfort of a vehicle’s occupants while addressing many of the congestion challenges of modern transportation. This vehicle of the future already has a name, the “connected car.”

Converging Internet and Mobile Networks

The IoT differs from the traditional Internet by replacing the main source of data input (humans) with computers, machines and sensors. Such a development ensures the physical world is intimately interfaced to the Internet without the need for human intervention.

The implications of this are huge, because unlike humans––who make mistakes and get bored, systems dedicated to the job of gathering data perform their designated role without error or fatigue. Kevin Ashton, the man credited with coining the phrase the “Internet of Things” back in 1999, noted: “If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things, using data they gathered without any help from us, we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.”

Networking company Cisco Systems, among others, describes the IoT as the convergence of Internet Protocol (IP) networks––millions of computers and billions of other IP devices in the home and office––with mobile networks––millions of voice communications and billions of data packets from Internet-capable mobiles––to form a network of a trillion end points, using a common infrastructure, ranging from simple sensors to machines to more complex objects such as cars.

The phrase “reduce waste, loss and cost,” is something of a mantra to the automotive sector, so, together with silicon vendors that supply the industry, auto manufacturers are among the most enthusiastic proponents of the IoT. One key driver for this enthusiasm is the opportunity to introduce cost-saving measures such as performing “over-the-air” updates to the car’s software – particularly in key components such as the engine management unit (EMU). This could allow critical modifications to be made without the cost of recalling potentially millions of vehicles.

But whatever the motivation for the automotive companies, the addition of IoT to the car will also be a boon for consumers.

The Rise of Intelligent Transport Systems

Application of the IoT will extend to all aspects of the car. For example, the mechanics of the vehicle, external infrastructure supporting traffic flow, and the comfort and entertainment of the occupants would all be somehow connected. The connected car will be able to benefit from intelligent transport systems (ITS) combining inter- and intra-vehicular communication, smart traffic control, electronic toll collection, vehicle control, as well as safety and road assistance, among many others.

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Figure 2: The connected car will benefit from intelligent transport systems. (Source: ETSI)

Cars connected to the IoT will be able to supply information about location, speed and direction, allowing powerful servers to analyze traffic flow, predict bottlenecks, and manage congestion when jams do occur. Inside the car, drivers will be warned about impending problems and advised of alternative clear routes. Outside the vehicle, congestion-easing techniques directed by these computers will include variable speed limits, smart traffic lights and signage, tidal road flow, and variable toll pricing. Some of these systems already exist by measuring traffic flow using roadside monitoring or buried-inductive loops, but information coming directly from connected cars will offer more precise information, in real time, and across a wider catchment.

Data flows into the connected car for a better driving experience. Someday “road rage” may be a thing of the past as the next generation of connected car services leverages dynamic data to provide intelligence that can avoid real-time traffic snarls, quickly find open parking spaces, as well as provide the already familiar GPS and search experiences to find charging stations or compare prices on nearby fuel sources. INRIX, a Seattle-based company, creates tools for the connected car, including one that helps drivers find on- and off-street parking, as well as providing real-time and predictive traffic data from as many as 2 billion data points per day, applied to in-car traffic services.

The connected car enables direct communication with the driver, offering advice on how to avoid the areas of congestion. And in the future, the worst cases of congestion could be managed by allowing remote computers to take control of a vehicle and manage its progress through the traffic jam before handing control back over to the driver when things calm down.

But while solving congestion is undoubtedly beneficial to both drivers’ sanity and the country’s economy, safety remains the number one priority for car makers and traffic authorities. So it is not surprising that these organizations are looking for ways to leverage the IoT to make driving safer.

Avoiding accidents in the first place is the best way to eliminate injuries and fatalities, and engineers are working on systems that take the concept of congestion avoidance a step further by lowering the risk of collisions using real-time information about how well others on the road are driving. Drivers could be assigned a score and the system would then warn of poor performers much like a GPS system today warns driver of red light cameras with a gentle electronic chime.

Other IoT-enabled accident avoidance schemes may use ITS to analyze the data from connected cars to ensure that two vehicles don’t end up on the same piece of highway at the same time. One example of this technology comes from Adelaide, an Australia-based Cohda Wireless. Cohda’s system uses an STMicroelectronics GPS platform to provide data about the vehicle’s progress. The GPS platform is teamed with an STA2062 multimedia processor that handles the telematics.

If danger is identified, the driver is immediately warned to take steps to avoid an accident. Cohda Wireless says its technology extends driver awareness beyond buildings that block the driver’s view, enabling drivers to be aware of all threats.

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Figure 3: Cohda Wireless’ ITS warns drivers of potential hazards that are out of sight. (Source: Cohda Wireless.)

The European Union (EU) is taking a leading role in moving the connected car from concept to reality. Two European standards organizations, European Telecommunication Standard Institute (ETSI) and the European Committee for Standardization (Comité Européen de Normalisation or CEN) confirmed last year that the basic set of standards to make connected cars a reality are complete. These standards ensure that vehicles made by different manufacturers will be able to communicate with each other.

The EU states that all new cars are expected to have built-in technology that will allow them to automatically call emergency services if the worst happens. If the car’s occupants are not conscious, the technology will provide the vehicle’s location to emergency services. The system will also convey vital information to the emergency services such as the make and model of vehicle, crash location, fuel type used, and even the number of seat belts fastened at the time of the crash.

Inside the Connected Car

At first glance, the inside of tomorrow’s connected car won’t appear too different from today’s vehicles. A large human machine interface (HMI) will likely dominate the dash in a similar way to those in contemporary vehicles. And because a modern car already contains a lot of networked electronics with proven reliability (and benefitting from commodity pricing beloved of a sector that looks to continually drive down costs), much of that technology will remain yet be adapted to suit connection to the IoT.

However, the adaptation required could be considerable. Modern vehicles encompass sophisticated networks formed from wired and wireless elements. Electronic control units (ECUs)––that power everything from dashboard instruments to safety features and powertrain components to in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems––form a key part of these networks. The number of these devices in the average car has doubled in the past ten years, and many vehicles now incorporate more than 125 separate ECUs. Today’s cars also boast a swarm of sensors monitoring everything from road conditions, distance to the vehicle in front, vehicle speed and acceleration, and location (via GPS) to internal temperature, seatbelt tension, and driver alertness.

Wireless connectivity such as Bluetooth technology or Wi-Fi is typically used to connect smartphones and tablets to the vehicle’s dash-mounted HMI. Most of the other sensors in the contemporary car, like those monitoring powertrain, chassis, body, control and safety use wired Controller Area Network (CAN) or Local Interconnect Network (LIN) buses. The instrument cluster is also connected via a CAN bus to the network. All network connections terminate at a central gateway that supervises functions and can be accessed from an external computer via an on-board diagnostics data link connector (OBD DLC).

Changes to this conventional layout in an IoT-enabled vehicle are likely to include the use of Ethernet to link the various systems replacing CAN and LIN buses (particularly as Ethernet has recently been embraced by several automotive OEMs for vehicle infotainment buses) and the introduction of mini-hubs to aggregate groups of sensors or ECUs to simplify the network. Everything will still connect back to a central-vehicle gateway that will retain the OBD DLC, but vehicles will also incorporate a telemetry module to look after the wireless connectivity to the Internet. While the car itself may form a “thing” on the Internet, the various systems and subsystems will generate the information that will be of most value to the IoT. A good way to consider a vehicle’s IoT connectivity is to consider the car as a large hub to which all the systems and subsystems of the vehicle link in order to send and receive information to the wider network.

Today, the computational power and intelligence required to take the raw data from systems in the car, send it in a form that’s useful to external servers, and then receive and disseminate information coming back, resides in the central vehicle gateway. But in the near future automotive sensors could include technology that will allow communication to servers in the cloud directly, using the gateway simply as a “dumb” forwarding device. Software such as Bluetooth v4.1 (which includes a low-power variant “Bluetooth low energy” suitable for wireless sensors) already includes foundation technology that will lead to wireless sensors with their own IP addresses communicating directly with remote devices on the Internet. Companies such as STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Nordic Semiconductor are pioneers in this field.

Adding Car Connectivity

Electronics manufacturers have identified the automotive segment as a lucrative opportunity for their IoT products. But it’s early days for the technology and automotive-grade components are thin on the ground. Nonetheless, Intel is encouraging automotive engineers to experiment with IoT with the introduction of its In-Vehicle Solutions Development Kit based on the CM1050 high-performance compute module. The company claims the kit simplifies in-vehicle system design. Intel has also formed an Internet of Things Solutions Alliance with companies such as Altera, Arbor and Greenliant in order to increase momentum.

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Figure 4: The Connected Car is a smartphone on wheels, with access to search functions and real-time data such as traffic accidents or construction.

And Texas Instruments is working hard to exploit automotive IoT with its WiLink 8Q solutions. The company says the WiLink 8Q automotive wireless connectivity family offers scalability across multiple technologies to deliver features such as in-car multimedia streaming video in parallel with Bluetooth technology hands-free calling and navigation via GPS.

Freescale Semiconductor is also backing automotive IoT, putting its focus on Linux and Android operating systems as the basis of future vehicle software and suggesting the i.MX family of automotive application processors are a good solution for vehicle network applications.

The IoT promises to improve the driving experience and save lives. However, in order to fully unlock this potential, a wide range of barriers need to be addressed, including security, safety, regulation, lack of cross-industry standards, widely varying industry dynamics and life cycles, and limited initial addressable market sizes. So while the future for the connected car is undoubtedly bright, the highway to its introduction is covered with speed bumps.

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