Sunday, July 22, 2012

Will autonomous car tech save your life?

"But if we can prevent crashes altogether, that's even better." This statement comes at the end of a new video from the Highway Loss Data Institute, which explores how some crash avoidance systems are, in fact, reducing crashes.

Before we watch the video — and it really is worth watching — allow me to digress. The notion of achieving 100% crash prevention is, to my mind, a non-starter. It's like saying that kids can play sports without ever getting hurt, or that you can live with other people without ever catching a cold. Yes, you should do what you can to keep such outcomes to an absolute minimum, but life doesn't come with 100% guarantees, aside from those that apply to death and taxes. In fact, the only way to ensure a system is 100% safe is to ensure it does absolutely nothing.

Fortunately, the crash-avoidance systems in question are doing something, and in some cases, the something is good. The findings reported by the HLDI are fascinating, since they suggest that systems which take action on behalf of the driver are sometimes more effective than systems which provide warnings only. In other words, fewer crashes occur when the car, rather than the driver, takes control in a dangerous situation. Feeling like Captain Dunsel yet? :-)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

For safety’s sake, why don’t cars just disable phones?

With all the focus on driver distraction, this is a question that I get asked occasionally. It’s a simple question, with a less than simple answer.

Using technology to control inappropriate phone use has been a topic at some of the driver distraction meetings I've attended. One proposed solution involves a technique called micro location — using ultrasonic waves to identify where in the cabin the phone is located. There are other ways to triangulate the phone's position, but they all require coordination between the phone and car. Knowing where the phone resides in the car is a requirement, as most passengers wouldn’t be happy to have their phone automatically disabled, just because they’re in the car. And the solution can’t be based only on the GPS speed of the phone, or you’d have lots of irate bus, taxi, train, or subway riders.

The fact is, unless all phone makers and car makers agree on the same standard, there's no incentive for either side to build half of a feature. You’d need to deploy potentially expensive technology that wouldn’t work unless you pair exactly the right phone with the right car. This likely won't happen unless companies are legislated to do so.

Given the speed of automotive development, it’s impossible for the car guys to build a technology that the phone guys won't leave in the dust, unless some guarantees are put in place. The adoption of Bluetooth is a good example. It took years before Bluetooth became widespread in phones, but its adoption had more to do with Bluetooth earpieces, not connections to cars. Car makers took a long time to roll out Bluetooth support as a standard feature because too many phones either didn't have it or had an implementation that wasn't fully compatible. Eventually, the two markets synchronized, but it took several years.

One argument against a technology-mandated disable is that not all jurisdictions agree on what is, or isn’t, allowable. In the US, 45 out of 50 states have some form of prohibition against using phones in cars. But what is disallowed varies widely by state — some don't allow any use of the phone (even hands-free), some prohibit teenagers but no other age groups, some disallow texting but not hands-free, some disallow use for commercial vehicles but not private vehicles, and some allow everything.

Another argument against a technological solution is that people can be educated to assume responsibility for their behavior. For example, why don't all cars have a blood alcohol level blow-tester hooked up to the ignition? Technically it's possible, but it's very expensive to do it from the car maker's standpoint. One could argue that it is worth it to have cars protect us from ourselves. But as a society, we've decided that, in the case of drunk driving, we are willing to give people back the responsibility. Rather than control the problem with technology, we socialize and educate people that driving intoxicated is an undesirable behavior.

We could, of course, decide to do the same with mobile technology, by educating personally instead of solving technically. This approach may make more sense than a technology-based prohibition: technology always moves at light speed compared to legislative mechanisms of control.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How will HTML5 play out in the car? A video series roundup

Last Fall, my colleagues Andy Gryc and Nancy Young launched a video series on HTML5 in the car. To their credit, they took the surround-sound approach and asked a variety of people from the automotive ecosystem to weigh in on the topic. So far, they've interviewed executives from Audi, OnStar, and TCS, as well as automotive and web-technology experts from QNX Software Systems and RIM.

Naturally, everyone they spoke to has a different take on the topic. So I thought I'd bring all the videos together in one place to give you an overall view of how the industry sees HTML5 playing out in the car. Grab some popcorn, dim the lights, and check them out:

Kickoff video
Andy Gryc kicks off the series with his take on why he believes HTML5 is poised to become the foundation for next-gen automotive apps and HMIs:

Interview with Steve Schwinke of OnStar
Andy catches up with Steve Schwinke, director of advanced technology for OnStar, who believes that HTML5 can change the auto industry for the better. (Did you know? The OnStar RemoteLink App for BlackBerry was coded in HTML5):

Interview with Michael Camp of TCS
Andy Gryc sits down with Michael Camp, director of engineering for in-car telematics at TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), to get a software supplier's perspective on HTML5. Michael is a very articulate guy, and worth a listen:

The myth buster interview
Andy meets up with Kerry Johnson of QNX to poke holes into the most common myths about HTML5. They discuss how HTML5 apps can deliver snappy performance, run without a Web browser, and even work without an Internet connection:

Interview with Matthew Staikos of RIM
Andy talks with Matthew Staikos, web-technology manager at RIM, about the impact of HTML5 on hardware options, memory usage, and app stores:

Interview with Sheridan Ethier
Andy meets up with Sheridan Ethier of QNX to get a developer's perspective on HTML5:

Interview with Mathias Haliger of Audi
And last but not least, here's the most recent installment in the HTML5 video series, which we featured a couple of week ago. Mathias Haliger, head of MMI system architecture at Audi AG, speaks with QNX marketing VP Derek Kuhn about the importance of HTML5 to his company and why he considers it a game changer:


Thursday, July 12, 2012

So why all the fuss over HTML5?

HTML5 is not your father’s HTML – or, for that matter, your younger self's HTML. Nor is it simply a standard for delivering web content. Unlike its predecessors, HTML5 allows you to create an immense variety of applications and human machine interfaces (HMIs). It even lets you build applications that are neither connected to the Internet nor based on a traditional browser.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out the recent whitepaper,“Why HTML5 Is Becoming the HMI Technology of Choice,” from my colleagues Andy Gryc and Marc Lapierre.

To explain why HMI developers are turning to HTML5, Andy and Marc explore several themes. For instance:

  • HTML5 allows developers to construct applications either inside or outside of a browser, with capabilities such as databases, threading, and input from device hardware.
  • Using CSS3 animations, the <canvas> element, WebGL, and SVG graphics, HTML5 provides control over HMI rendering that is precise enough for games and flexible enough for applications.
  • The influx of software developers adopting HTML5 to build cross-platform applications is re-orienting the HMI development community, which is increasingly following traditional design patterns in its applications, separating the model (HTML/DOM), view (CSS), and controller (JavaScript) in a more maintainable architecture.

But what about the hardware?
Before you go, please note that the paper doesn't answer an important question; namely, how can an HMI developed with HTML5 communicate with a system's hardware devices? For instance, in the car, an HTML5-based HMI may need to communicate with the CAN bus, GPIO pins, and I2C and SPI devices, as well as with external devices like tablets and smartphones.

Fortunately, there's a paper for this, too. :-)

In "HTML5-Hardware Communication with PPS Messaging," also written by Andy Gryc, you'll find out how PPS, an HMI-agnostic, asynchronous messaging model, can provide a very flexible approach to communicating with in-vehicle hardware.

With PPS, devices don’t communicate with the HMI directly. Rather, they become publishers of data objects to which the HMI can subscribe. As a result, it becomes much easier to swap out or modify devices, as well as the HMI itself. This, of course, is the Reader's Digest version. Download the paper to get the fully skinny.

Further reading (and viewing)

If you're interested in HTML5 and the car, here are some other papers and posts I recommend:


Monday, July 9, 2012

The future of the self-driving car ain't what it used to be

Some people think self-driving cars are cool, others think they're very cool, and still others can barely contain themselves. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an article I stumbled on a few days ago:

    "Some day in the future when you drive onto a superhighway, you’ll reach over to your dashboard and push the button marked “Electronic Drive.” Selecting your lane, you’ll settle back to enjoy the ride as your car adjusts itself to the prescribed speed. You may prefer to read or carry on a conversation with your passengers—or even to catch up on your office work. It makes no difference for the next several hundred miles as far as the driving is concerned."

Bring it on, I say. Especially since the technical challenges are far from insurmountable, or so the author claims. I quote again from the same article, which reviewed a study of driver assistance systems conducted on a public highway in Nebraska:

    The demonstration made two major points. First: the various elements of the system can be used immediately in conjunction with roadside and intersection lights to increase driving safety under present conditions... Second: the system as a whole can be developed without major technical complications into a fully automatic highway traffic control system. [emphasis mine]

Told you: This will be easy!

But here's the thing. This article dates from 1958, when it was published in a journal called Electronic Age. Here's a facsimile of the article's opening page, courtesy of the folks at the Modern Mechanix blog:

As you can see, the caption writer is even more optimistic, claiming that "electronic highways" (and, by extension, electronic drive) will eliminate accidents and make driving "foolproof".

Well, if the self-driving car is so easy, why haven't we seen it yet?

The short answer: we have. But it's a work in progress.

Giving up control
It all started 80 years ago, when GM introduced the first automatic transmissions. For the first time, the car started to make some driving decisions — namely, when to shift gears — on behalf of the driver.

Fast-forward to the early 1970s, when the first computerized anti-lock brakes came off the assembly line. These, too, do some "thinking" on behalf of the driver. When you slam your foot on the brake pedal of a car with anti-lock brakes, you're not really in control. You're just asking the braking system to make a series of decisions for you.

Fast-forward again to 2003, when Toyota introduced automatic parallel parking. With this technology, the car becomes even more autonomous, to the point of steering itself. More to the point, it does a better job at parallel parking than many humans — including yours truly.

Kicking out the jams
Other driver assistance systems also come to mind, including adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance technology. When you add them all up, it becomes obvious that the self-driving car is coming along nicely, thank you. Moreover, it's moving downmarket.

For instance, Ford recently announced Traffic Jam Assist, a combination of active cruise control and lane-position technology already available on the Focus, Escape, and Fusion. Using cameras and radar sensors, the new system will help the car stay in its lane and keep pace with other vehicles.

The Ford system signals an important trend. In a recent article, Doug Newcomb quoted Ian Riches of Strategy Analytics as saying. “In 2009, over 70 percent of ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) technology was fitted to premium vehicles. By 2019, we’re forecasting only around 40 percent of ADAS will be on these premium vehicles..."

It don't come easy
Don't get me wrong. I realize that building a fully (or mostly) autonomous car is an immense challenge. Making it affordable is an even bigger challenge. But clearly, things are moving along. And, as my colleague Andy Gryc has pointed out, the sheer difficulty of achieving autonomy is precisely what will motivate some extremely intelligent people to pony up to the challenge.

Personally, I don't know what fascinates me more: the engineering behind these advances or that people are becoming accustomed to letting go — of their steering wheels, of their gas pedals, of being in control. It's an interesting socialization process.

Either way, one thing is for sure: the self-driving future really ain't what it used to be. Because, this time, it's real.

Moving pictures
Enough talk. Here's a video of Ford's proposed Traffic Jam Assist system, which can take of steering, braking, and acceleration in stop/start traffic:


Thursday, July 5, 2012

QNX CAR goes to school

A while back, my good friends at Freescale approached me about sponsoring a program called EcoCAR 2. Established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and General Motors, EcoCAR 2 challenges 15 North American universities to create a greener vehicle without compromising performance, safety, and consumer acceptability.

This initiative isn't really new as it builds on a 23-year history of DOE advanced vehicle technology competitions. What is new is that, for the first time, students are being asked to include an infotainment system in the vehicle.

This is an exciting opportunity for QNX. Being able to work with young minds and supporting university research has always been a priority, but this is the first time we've been able to engage so directly with the next generation of automotive engineers. We are enabling them in much the same way that we enable our customers, with full access to the QNX CAR application platform as the baseline for their systems.

This is year one of a three-year program. Given the innovation that has gone into the QNX CAR platform by QNX and its ecosystem in the last year alone, I cannot imagine what the bright young minds will come up with for 2014. Looking forward to it...