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Onboard chips taking over human hands

Our Bureau  |  Bangalore 

Vrooming down a street may be one of the things car enthusiasts may be asked to give up, in the future, in exchange for safety. Computer chips, expensive today but not tomorrow, are taking over more functions in a car, as the seek to make the vehicles safer, more fuel efficient and cleaner.
From deciding the fuel-air mixture in the engine to how the pressure applied to each wheel when a driver pushes down hard on his brake pedal, are taking the decision out of human hands. In the foreseeable future, with the exception of the lovers of stick shift and turbo charged engines, for those who prefer a hands-off approach to driving, car makers will deliver just that.
Rapid advances in technology, the need for safer, more fuel-efficient and cleaner cars are driving investments that are throwing up such solutions. Today's cars are nowhere near ideal, but they are a pointer to the direction things are taking. "The trend is clear," says Sanjay Handu, commercial head of Tyco Electronics Corporation India. "Cars will get better, even at the lower price levels." Tyco is a large component supplier to OEMs. "In India, some 30 per cent of our revenues come from the auto market," Handu told Business Standard.
In mature markets, such as Europe, Japan and the US, a number of sophisticated sensors are in the market. The sensors talk to electronic control units (ECU), in determining how a car is doing on flat roads to hair pin bends to icy surfaces.
Component makers, such as Robert Bosch, with its state-of-the art testing centre in Boxberg, Germany, routinely test cars for their customers. The tests range from spinning the car on icy surfaces to testing its traction on swerving to avoid an obstacle in high speed - common enough situations in real life.
The sophistication has increased to the level where the ECUs, also called electronic control modules, "sense" danger to the car. It makes its decision, to say reduce fuel, depending on such inputs as the speed and the way the driver is driving, to "assist" him in better controlling the car.
The also exists today, to make a car run on its own detecting obstacles in its way and moving at a safe speed. The "assistance" comes in the form of little motors called actuators that will respond to commands from the ECU and more or less force the car to make corrections to what would otherwise have been dangerous driving. Other add-ons, from the anti-lock braking system (ABS), that prevents wheels from locking when a driver breaks hard at high speed, to airbags to modern hand brakes that can be engaged by the press of a button and released automatically by pressing down on the accelerator pedal, are fast becoming standard equipment in the richer markets.
For instance, almost all new cars sold in Europe this year and certainly next year, will have the latest ABS, say industry experts. Modern cars, they say, could be equipped with as many as 80 sensors. By the end of this decade, cars will have migrated from having stand alone safety features such as the ABS to highly integrated systems that will act more like electronic stability programmes (ESP), they say.
The ESP would increase driving stability "actively" when accelerating, rolling and braking and help improve steering ability in extreme situations. In two to three years, it is estimated that some 30 million car owners will have satellite navigation systems on their cars and the numbers will only increase.
Safer and cleaner cars also mean using more and more to make critical decisions that would otherwise be made by a driver. So driving cars would indeed be hands off one day. It may not be fun, but there are compensations: One could sit back and watch a movie, or simply go to sleep, to be awakened when the destination approaches.

First Published: Thu, July 07 2005. 00:00 IST