General Motors on wireless cars and software crashes

Although the age of gasoline-powered cars may not yet be over, cars are becoming less mechanically complicated and more software- and wireless-dependent, according to Tony Scott, chief technology officer at General Motors in the US.

According to Scott, cars like GM's experimental Hy-Wire vehicle, which has its fuel-cell-powered drive system under the floorboards and all of its controls on the steering wheel, show what cars are going to look like soon. The Hy-Wire is completely controlled by software.

"The auto industry is going to be fundamentally changed in five to 10 years," Scott said at Computerworld US' Mobile & Wireless World conference this week. "We are going from gasoline to hybrid to fuel cells. The current gasoline-based economy in the auto industry is doomed as far as we can tell. That also means the mechanical connections are changing from drive by wire to drive by wireless."

Scott said that the gas pedal in the current line of Corvettes, for instance, isn't mechanically connected to the engine. Instead, it works more like the controls in a video game. "The Boeing 777 is completely fly by wire and the theory is that if it is good enough for airplanes, it is good enough for cars," Scott said.

The evolution of technology in cars means greater challenges for the automotive industry. As cars get more and more wireless, there will be a greater need for multiple antennas to carry necessary data. Many cars have 30 wireless sensors in them right now, and some currently on the drawing board have 50 devices in them. That, Scott said, could mean a lot of antennas. Since GM doesn't want to make drivers look like "radio geeks" with multiple antennas or whip antennas, Scott said GM is now doing a lot of research into antennas to keep the cars attractive.

It's also keeping an eye on another issue facing the automotive industry: the growing use of software for major automobile functions.

"We spend more per vehicle on software than we do on steel," Scott said. Since cars typically last for 10 years or more, the onboard software has to last that long -- and be able to be upgraded over time. The change also means that auto mechanics will need to become software experts, able to keep up with changes and updates.

"How many of you on your personal systems are running software that is 10 years old?" Scott asked the audience at the conference. "This is a challenge for the whole industry."

The software-heavy automobile presents legal challenges, too, Scott said. If a software maker does something that leads to driver distraction, it could be liable in lawsuits that might arise. And there is also the problem of what happens with a software crash.

"When you are driving the Hy-Wire vehicle, you don't want to get that blue screen of death and have the car just stop in the middle of the freeway," Scott said.

Scott identified several technology issues car manufacturers will face down the road:

With all the wireless devices in an automobile and all the possible devices an owner might have, carmakers must make sure everything is compatible. "Consumers have an expectation that they will be able to bring their devices into the car and that those devices will work," Scott said.

Because most automobiles will have a Global Positioning System onboard, auto insurance rates might be based on how a person really drives, as opposed to the theoretical scoring systems now used.

Cars will also be more self-diagnostic. It will be common for someone from a control center, such as OnStar, to contact a driver to tell him what to do when a warning light goes off. Given the plethora of technology and devices now being used in cars, many of them coming from multiple vendors with different standards, manufacturers like GM have to figure out how to put everything together so it works. "GM," he said, "is becoming a very large integration house."

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