Thursday, January 7, 2016

In the zone — a visit to the QNX concept garage

Guest post by QNX consultant and software designer Rob Krten.

How often have you heard the expression, “If it were easy to do, everyone would do it”? I’m constantly amazed at the things that QNX does with their concept cars. To me, a car is an inviolate object that must be touched only by the dealer (well, ok, I do top up the windshield wiper fluid and I once changed a battery). I don’t say that because I necessarily like to give the dealer money, but I just don’t want to break anything that’ll cost me more to get fixed properly later.

Pushing the envelope, however, means getting right in there and doing stuff. QNX engineers have done this for their technology concept cars — from replacing the mirrors with LCD screens, to getting right into the dash and rebuilding it, to adding cameras into the antenna fin on the roof. It’s nothing for them to rip out the center console and then look at all the wiring and go, “Huh, ok — so we need to lengthen this wire, add a shim here, move this piece,” and so on. They are fearless.

Redoing the dash of the QNX
reference vehicle.
Sometimes the “getting right in there” is physical; other times, it’s software based — such as making a new application that lives in the infotainment stack or that interfaces with a smartphone. Like a “Dude, where’s my car?” feature — when your Bluetooth phone unpairs with your car, the phone records the current GPS position. Later, when you’re looking for your car, your phone can recall this last stored GPS position — this must be where you left your car. Or even simple aids, such as a radio tuner that detects when you are losing an AM/FM signal and automatically switches to the corresponding digital station, so you can continue listening to your favorite station anywhere you drive.

Curious to see what the future holds, and to actually see some of this work in action, I invited myself down to the “garage” at QNX headquarters. It’s at the far end of the building, next to the cafeteria. The hallway is festooned with posters of previous QNX concept vehicles, highlighting success stories in 3-foot-high glory.

The day I visited, there were half a dozen people in the garage, and two vehicles: a Jeep and a Highlander (otherwise known as the QNX reference vehicle and QNX technology concept vehicle). The garage is a combination of software development lab, hardware development lab, simulation environment, and actual garage (but without the greasy/oily smell). I wanted to get a sense of what drives these people, what they do, and how they do it.

Digital analogs
No, not that kind of digital 
display. Credit: Peter Halasz
The first thing I learned was that there are no real limits. They have the freedom to innovate, without preconceived notions about how things should look. For example, a lead designer on the team (let’s call him Allan, because that’s his name), explained how they look at the controls in the car’s dash display area. In the era of analog, the speedometer had a certain look — it was usually a needle rotating about a central point, where the needle pointed to the speed you were going. In the very early era of digitization, car manufacturers changed this needle to a seven-segment numerical display.

Of course, this was a failure, because the human brain is basically analog; it likes to see nice, continuous changes for processes that are continuous — such as the speed that you’re going. Seven-segment digits change too “randomly”; they require higher-level cognitive functions to parse what the individual lights mean and convert that into digits, and then convert that into a “speed” (and then convert that into “too slow,” or “just right,” or “too fast,” and then, finally, convert that into “apply brake” or “press down on throttle”).

Allan pointed out that changing to a digital display didn’t necessarily mean that they have to slavishly follow the analog “physical” appearance (except do it on an LCD display), but that they were free to experiment with “fill concepts” — digitally controlled analogs to the actual controls. We likened it to the displays in military avionics, where the most important information becomes bigger as it increases in importance. Consider a fighter jet at 20,000 feet — the altitude isn’t nearly as important as it as at 300 feet. Therefore, at 20,000 feet, the part showing the altitude is small, and in a less prominent position than it is when the plane is at 300 feet. The same thing with your speedometer: if you’re doing the speed limit, it’s not as important to show your current speed (you’re most likely flowing with traffic) as it is when you’re 20 over (or under).

In this image from the new QNX technology concept vehicle, the digital instrument cluster is warning that a
forward collision is imminent, and that the driver is exceeding the speed limit by 12 mph. 

You could do the same thing with your fuel range — when you have a full tank, the indicator can be off in a corner somewhere. But as you start to run low, the indicator can get bigger or more prominent, to start nagging you to refuel. By having the displays all be “virtual” on a large LCD screen in the dash, the designers have incredible flexibility to create systems that present relevant information when required, and have it move out of the way when something more important comes along. (Come to think of it, this would be an awesome feature to have on turn-signal indicators — after you’ve kept your blinker on for more than 10 seconds, it would start to get bigger and brighter. Maybe then people would stop driving with their turn indicator permanently on.)

Collision avoided: The V2X command center
Also in the lab was a huge (3 by 5 foot) flat-panel touchscreen, mounted at an angle that’s aggressively unfriendly to coffee cups (probably for that very reason). It’s reminiscent of Star Trek’s main transporter control station, but it’s used to control and display the simulation environment’s V2V (vehicle to vehicle) and V2I (vehicle to infrastructure) data. It acts as a command center to control and reveal the innards of what’s going on in the simulation environment:

When I was there, we ran a vehicle collision avoidance scenario. Two vehicles (the Jeep and the Highlander, of course — they’re tied in to the system) were heading on a collision course (one was southbound and one was eastbound in a grid-style road system). Because they have V2V capabilities, both cars were aware of their impending doom. This showed up nicely on the V2V command center control panel — two cars heading towards each other, little red circles emanating from them indicating the realtime V2V “pings.” Of course, in plenty of time, the Jeep slowed down to avoid the collision (the actual brake lights even went on!). The speed, GPS coordinates, direction, and even what gear each vehicle was in were all shown on the master console. Towards the end of my visit I almost had Allan convinced to do another master control console for the OBDII connector so you could interact with all of the information in each car. What can I say? I like front panels. (I’m a reformed PDP-8 collector.)

The V2X command center, which makes its debut this week at CES, provides a bird’s eye view of several V2X traffic scenarios. In this example, V2X allows a vehicle (the Jeep) to detect that a vehicle up ahead (the Highlander) has braked suddenly, giving the Jeep plenty of time to slow down.

The engineers in the concept garage are “in the zone.” They’re working in an environment that encourages innovation. Watch and see what they produce:

About Rob
Rob is president of Iron Krten Consulting, which provides technical leadership services, from software leadership consulting through to security and embedded software products, development, training and contract services. Rob is also engaged by QNX Software Systems to write marketing and technical documentation. Visit Rob's website.

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