Using a vehicle-to-grid strategy in the future, electric car batteries will be able to dump energy back onto the grid when utilities need help. A grid interface on a prototype Ford Escape plug-in hybrid allows users to control the time of re-charging and check the costs of electricity on the grid at any given moment. (Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)
I used to think of a car as a mechanical system with some electronics. In the past six months, it's clicked into my head that the modern automobile is actually an electronics platform, with (usually) an internal combustion engine as a component (sitting in the front like a refrigerator sits in the kitchen), though not necessarily an ICE; it could be a battery pack. Or a fuel cell (well, not really, that's not happening, though that's actually what I believe to be the most promising alternative technology). I guess my point, even though I'm an EE, is I think maybe we've hit a point where there's TOO much electronics in the modern car.
I have to agree with Alex about the trend of loading up modern vehicles with too much electronics, especially for the average consumer. I have a pretty new car loaded with GPS, rear-view camera, built-in bluetooth, etc. For the life of me, I can't figure out how to use all of this stuff and forget about trusting the camera for backing up--no can do.
I can't even imagine relying on all the sensors and other electronics involved in automatic parallel parking or waking up the driver in the event they fall asleep at the wheel. While there's definitely a role for modern technology, at what point is it overkill, over complicated, and more of a detriment in terms of driver distraction?
The tier-one suppliers and automakers agree with both of you. They know that today's vehicle have too many MCUs, and they know that the wiring rises to an almost unmanagable level as cars start to employ 70 or 80 MCUs. Today's vehicles typically have between 45 and 70 pounds of wiring in them. One solution to the problem is to use more multicore processors, which reduces the number of chips, and therefore reduces wiring, too. Another is to use domain architectures, in which a few powerful processors pick up a lot of the computing chores. The problem is, all this stuff is going to get worse as more vehicles use hybrid and electric powertrains. So there's a big challenge ahead.
I do not need of this stuff to enjoy an automobile. I certainly do not relish the thought of paying to repair/replace these devices when they fail. I really do use my vehicle to commute and take occasional family trips. I used to even tune them up when it was possible to get at things. I long for the days when mechanics could actually find out what was wrong without needing a computer code to tell them. I had numerous anxious moments when my truck just stopped running, and no mechanic I went to could tell me why. "There is no code in the computer so there is no record of problems." Well yeah there is. Triple A has a record of my being towed here.
It turns out the alternator was spiking which would trigger something to kill the motor to prevent damage. Then it may or may not start right up and we could continue on our way. I stumbled across the problem because I happened to be looking at the dash and saw the amp needle leap all the way to the right just before the motor died.
Do not misunderstand, today's vehicles are far superior to any cars from my youth, but there are times I think the electronic technology has worked against rather than for the end user.
I remember as a kid sitting and watching Knight Rider and being fascinated at the ability of KITT to talk and park on its own. Now these items come standard on higher end vehicles. It is amazing on how far autos have come in just the last 20 years.
Still no standard Turbo Boost, but it may be on its way.
I have two concerns about the all the new fangled electronics and controls. First, drivers will start depending more and more on their cars to automatically correct for their poor driving habits. Driving habits will deteriorate rapidly. Second, when cars unexpectedly take over control from the driver and and an 'accident' results, the lawyers will have a field day.
The other concern is that any problem will always be "the computer". It's been my experience (not in the auto industry) that when anything goes wrong, its the part that people don't understand that is blamed.
I agree with Toolmaker. The best inventions for the internal combustion engine have been electronic fuel injection and electronic ignition. I dont need heated side view mirrors or wipers on my headlights...
I have to confess though, heated seats are nice in the cold weather...
Cars do indeed have to many processors and controllers. Multicore will certainly not improve things or reduce the number of them, it will only serve to increase both complexity and price, particularly price to repair them. Likewise, reliability will dive as more functions get mired in poorly written code.
Remember a few years back, when the car was going to have one giant control module and everything was going to be multiplexed, and the car would only have 3 wires? Now, primarily in the search for "product differentiation", every chunk of hardware that does anything spots it's own microcontroller. Worse, each of these little gimmics is vying for a bit of driver attention. The next goal is full internet connectivity and content, with location prompted advertising. Full time distraction coming to a vehicle, even dispite driving being a full time task.
The problem with all of the automation is that it is not able to deal with the exception correctly, every time, always. Drivers often can respond correctly, if they are not distracted, and if they are allowed to respond correctly. BUt the programmed systems can never be right all the time, because they can't ever be programmed that way.
The solution is not better programming, it is getting rid of much of the automation and allowing the driver to be in control. The system can record just what the driver did, so as to either clear him or to nail him. Of course this reduces privacy, but on the roads we could use some accountability, not privacy.