Drive-by computing

April 2015

BMW app being used on smartwatchWhen Henry Tucker went to CES2014 one of the things he was most impressed by were Audi’s computer controlled cars. You could park them simply by pressing a button on your smartphone. They could also take the controls in slow moving traffic, but because of legislation they couldn’t do more than that.

At CES2015, Audi was once again in attendance with what looked like the same cars and the same technology. This time though at least one of the cars drove itself from California to Las Vegas for CES.

This is the sort of leap forward I was expecting. After all, the previous year’s car had control hardware and software the size of a laptop whereas the previous year had a whole boot full!

The thing is the technology exists to make self-driving cars safe. The Audi has six radars, three cameras, and two light detection and ranging (LIDAR) units. The computers that allow the car to analyse the road, choose the optimal path and stick to it fit neatly in the boot. What is holding the industry back is legislation.

The common argument, when people are presented with computer controlled cars is, ‘what if the software crashes?’ To which I would say: is that any different from your car breaking down? When you look under the bonnet of modern cars there are two things you can access yourself, unless you happen to be a mechanic, and they are the oil and the water for the windscreen washer. With a computer-controlled car it’s exactly the same.

The other thing people sometimes say is, ‘what if it goes out of control?’ Now this is clearly from the realms of a Michael Crichton thriller where the cars go wrong and start acting malevolently. Again this isn’t going to happen. Software and hardware already exists to remotely disable cars - car rental firms use it to disable stolen vehicles. Software and hardware only go out of control because of human intervention, not through their own will.

I think that computers will be better drivers than humans; they won’t take risks, they’ll stick to speed limits and will be more efficient.

One thing you do need in order to have these self-driving cars though are accurate maps. Paper maps and sat navs are never 100 per cent accurate. With this in mind we had a chat with Nokia about its mapping project called Here.

It is sending cars out around the world to map roads in amazing detail so that cars, such as the Audi and every other one, can drive safely on the roads because it knows what is ahead of it.

Here also works with technology to share real-time road information. So, for example, if you are driving around a bend and a car is coming the other way it has sent information up into the cloud to tell systems that there is an obstacle in the road. Then, as you go around the bend, your car receives that information and can approach it with caution.

Now Audi and Nokia weren’t the only companies to show off things they have been working on. In fact most of the major car manufacturers were in attendance and there were keynotes from Ford and Mercedes-Benz. In fact some commentators are now saying that CES is more important for the auto industry than the traditional car shows.

BMW showed an electronic car valet system that not only parks your car for you (always a good idea) but then drives it back to you after you press a button on your watch. Now if that’s not straight out of a sci-fi movie I don’t know what is.

It also showed its crash prevention system that uses laser scanners to measure the space around the car, so if you don’t see an obstacle it will and will then brake accordingly.

QNX, a subsidiary of Blackberry, showed off a system of driver assistance that uses  sensors, cameras, navigation engines, cloud-based services, speech interfaces, and acoustics software to create experiences that simplify driving tasks, warns of possible collisions and enhances driver awareness.

At the 2014 show I spoke to BMW and they told me about their system for in-car apps and it now seems that Ford has got in on the act too. The company showed off its systems where you can access your phone’s apps using the app link tool, including services such as streaming music app Spotify.

One thing that annoys probably every driver on the roads worldwide is road works and the associated traffic jams that they often cause. The constant stop-start nature of these jams is something that Bosch is looking to address with its Traffic Jam Assist technology that it is introducing in the first part of 2015 to give drivers a ‘hands free experience’ in jams up to around 45mph.

Even companies such as nVidia, which is usually associated with computer graphics development, have got in on the act. In fact at CES2015 the main features of its stand were two cars. It showed off its new nVidia Drive CX that features a Tegra X1 processor that is designed to power a car’s digital cockpit experience such as the sat nav and entertainment functionality.

It also showed off its nVidia Drive PX in-car computer that allows for app development for semi and fully autonomous driving. One such application is nVidia’s own Deep Learning that, according to nVidia, allows your computer to learn from its surroundings and, to quote nVidia, ‘become intelligent.’ It also features surround vision, 360 degree cameras, that can be used for autonomous parking.

Driving around in our cars is, statistically, one of the most dangerous things we can do. Technology such as this will, I think, start to make the road a lot safer for all of us.

Related information

On Wednesday March 25 the University of Bedfordshire student chapter held a talk from Dr. Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project - Read more about the event


Image: BMW

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    Brian wrote on 24th Apr 2015

    I had a really nice Audi A6. at approximately 120,000 miles the telephone control unit died - a box the size of a matchbox. It is connected via fibre on the CAN bus, so nothing worked, no sat nag, no radio, cd, I couldn't even change the clock. Took it to the Audi shop. That will be £1200 please sir.

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  • 2
    Danny Tregaskes wrote on 27th Apr 2015

    Having been involved with automotive retailing for 20 years, I can't help but smile when I read about people's concerns over computor controlled vehicles. Main reason being I can clearly recall the fuss people made over the potential for electric windows that may fail, ha ha. The last paragraph in this report is the most significant to me

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  • 3
    John Gilmartin wrote on 28th Apr 2015

    Mr Tucker, do you drive? In addition to knowing where to top up the engine oil and windscreen washer, a driver should also know where under the bonnet to check and if necessary top up the engine coolant, plus on many cars, the power steering fluid. Yes, your garage should check those, but so should you, regularly, not just once a year by your garage.

    If a car breaks down or suffers a problem while driving, it is down to the driver to safely bring it to a halt. As a career IT professional currently driving 20,000 miles per annum, the prospect of self driving cars fascinates me, but we should not play down the safety concerns, and certainly not in a hurry to bring them to market faster. Software is written by humans and humans make mistakes. The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost due to software errors. Do you seriously expect self driving cars' software to be completely bug free?

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