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5 Ways Your Car Has Become a Computer on Wheels

The computing power of your car is immense. It’s so big, it might be helpful to put the data processed by it into five buckets.

 Infotainment System: This is the system that operates your radio, and also interfaces with your smartphone, GPS, and the car apps your smartphone uses. This system may store information about who you call, where you shop, what routes you take, as well as text messages.

 Driving Sensors: Cars have relied on various sensors for decades, most of these related to driving. When you push the brake, a sensor is involved. When you turn the steering wheel, a sensor is involved. All these sensors create data.

 Perceptual Systems: With the rise of autonomous capabilities, cars increasingly come equipped with sensors that allow them to perceive the environment around them. Most new vehicles have a front-facing camera, as well as a rear one, and short-range radar on the corner that serve as alert sensors when changing lanes. More advanced vehicles may contain LiDAR sensors. This data helps the car “know” where it is in relation to the environment.

 Diagnostic Data: Usage and diagnostic data may also be collected. This might include engine performance. Makers of electric vehicles may collect information on how much battery power a vehicle has left, which can be used to direct drivers to the most convenient charging station.

 Biometric Data: Cars increasingly use various sensors to assess the behavior of drivers because as cars become increasingly autonomous, they still require human oversight. Manufacturers worried that users might be lulled into a false sense of security, use sensors to make sure drivers are keeping their eyes on the road, and their hands on the steering wheel. Internal cameras can also monitor drivers for signs of impairment or fatigue.

Connecting it all are multiple mini-computers called electronic control units, or ECUs, and a lot of software. A typical car may use 100 million lines of code.

Automakers are “starting to see and treat the car as software, running on hardware-in-motion,” said Bilin Aksun-Guvenc, IEEE member. “hence the term software-defined vehicle.”

Experts say that a few factors are at play when it comes to the digitization of driving.

The use of sensors and data in cars has led to big gains in fuel efficiency and the reduction of emissions. Safety and the reduction of distracted driving are also selling points for the integration of sensors. In many cases, some safety features, like backup cameras are required for new vehicles in some countries.

Perhaps the biggest demand for data, however, lies in the development of autonomous vehicles. Data is the lifeblood of artificial intelligence. Without it, the driving algorithms that enable autonomous driving can’t be trained.

“Autonomous cars need data for safe operation,” said IEEE Senior Member Santhosh Sivasubramani.

The computerization in cars shows no signs of slowing down. One idea being discussed is geo-fencing, which would create a virtual fence that prevents work vehicles or delivery trucks from leaving a certain area, or automatically limits speeds in downtown areas or schools. Some devices are even coming online to help monitor drivers’ heartbeats.


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