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What Makes Smart Cars So Smart?

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The era of the smart car is coming. We're talking cars so smart they park themselves, avoid collisions, and even phone home when they need maintenance. In this article, The Internet of Things author Michael Miller examines the current state of smart car technology, and looks at the ultimate future of smart cars -- the self-driving automobile.
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Today's cars are pretty dumb. Sure, car manufacturers rely on a bevy of in-car sensors and computers that make life difficult for old-school mechanics, but these systems are primitive compared to what we'll see in the near future. After all, today's cars still need trained mechanics to figure out what's wrong with them, and trained drivers to steer them down the highway and into parking spaces. Tomorrow's smarter cars will do all this -- and more -- themselves, without the need for puny humans to get their hands dirty.

The State of In-Car Intelligence Today

You can't deny it. Today's cars are a lot smarter than the cars of yesteryear. Many key mechanical systems are now controlled by microprocessors -- up to 100 of them, in some luxury cars -- all acting in concert to keep your car working in tip-top condition.

The laundry list of computer-controlled operations in current-model cars runs the gamut from air bag systems and anti-lock brakes to cruise control and keyless entry systems. Plus the climate control and entertainment systems, of course, and relatively basic stuff such as controlling your car's idle speed and automatic transmission.

These operations are supplemented by a variety of electronic sensors that feed real-time information back to the computer brains. We're talking air pressure sensors, air temperature sensors, engine temperature sensors, knock sensors oxygen sensors, throttle position sensors, and more. Data from these sensors is used to control spark plugs, fuel injectors, and other key components.

And when something goes wrong, critical data is fed to the engine control unit (ECU), the real brains in the automobile. The ECU monitors outputs from dozens of different sensors to control the engine's operation, emissions, and fuel economy.

Figure 1 The ECU from a BMW.

That said, the brainpower of a typical ECU is somewhat primitive. Today's ECUs aren't very powerful; we're talking a 40MHz CPU with 32-bit architecture, accompanied by just 1MB or so of RAM. That's a lot less robust than the 64-bit CPU in your personal computer -- and it limits what your car's systems can do.

So while it's easy to see that automotive technology is becoming less mechanical and more electronic, it's also apparent that there's a lot more progress to be made.

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