The infotainment system isn’t the only thing in cars meriting a wireless connection. Ford hopes to optimize engine performance in the future using cloud computing

October 17, 2011

5 Min Read
Ford’s cloud connected engine

Today’s cars can stream music, get traffic and inclement weather updates to their nav systems and even read you your SMS messages—all through a wireless connection. But tomorrow’s vehicles, according to Ford, will use wireless to connect much more than their infotainment consoles. Ford envisions linking a car’s power train via secured radio connections to computing platforms in the cloud, which could be used to optimize a vehicle’s performance in ways the limited on-board computers in today’s cars cannot.

Today hybrid cars and plug-in electric vehicles with backup combustion engines optimize their power trains generically, switching between the electric and gasoline motors under guidelines designed to conserve fuel in typical circumstances, said Johannes Kristinsson, system architect for vehicle controls architecture and algorithm design at Ford Research and Innovation in Dearborn, Mich. But Kristinsson pointed out there is really no such thing as ‘typical circumstances’ when it comes to driving. Thousands of factors could be taken into account when plotting the optimal configuration of a cars power train from current weather conditions and future weather forecasts to road conditions and traffic patterns, he said.

Kristinsson used as an example new low emissions zones emerging around cities like London. Typically the zones fine drivers by the amount of greenhouse gases their vehicles emit, exempting electric cars or hybrid vehicles operating entirely on their electric motors. A hybrid vehicle owner who lives near such a green zone and traverses that zone daily would want to minimize the use of his car’s gasoline motor as much as possible to avoid stiff emissions fees. While simply utilizing one’s gasoline motor while outside the zone, thus conserving electric power for driving within it, might be one option, it’s not an optimal one for taking full advantage of the car’s hybrid capabilities, Kristinsson said.

By accessing the resources of the cloud, the car could make thousands of individual real-time decisions as to when to use electric versus gasoline power in order to get the most fuel-efficient benefits from the power train while still preserving the necessary battery power to tackle the green zone in electric-only mode, Kristinsson said. While those calculations could be made by the car itself, drawing from both local and Internet data, there are some inherent limitations to that approach, Kristinsson said. To make the best choices, a power train optimization platforms would have to draw on thousands of real-time factors, plugging them into complex algorithms.

“That computational ability is too powerful for the computer in the vehicle,” Kristinsson said. “Even if we integrated such powerful computers into the vehicle its capabilities would be rarely used. That’s why power train optimization is an ideal cloud computing application.”

A cloud platform could mine databases and the Internet for detailed information such as precise weather forecasts, road wear statistics, construction alerts, traffic jams even speed limits and timing patterns for stop lights. It could draw information from the car itself, mining vehicle navigation history for common destinations and preferred routes along with common stops or diversions the driver makes. If the driver deviates from the customary routes, the cloud can recalculate. If the driver is actively using his nav system, then the cloud can tie the power-train configuration directly to the route map and reconfigure it as the driver’s plans change.

It’s conceivable that a cloud optimization platform could even draw on vehicle diagnostics and sensors, factoring into its calculations things like fuel levels and tire wear. But Kristinsson said the potential of such local information becomes even more powerful as vehicles become part of a larger self-aware network. Another concept Ford is working on is connecting cars not just to the Internet but to one another, using secure long-range Wi-Fi technologies to build organic constantly reconfiguring mobile mesh networks. By linking such a network to the cloud, Ford’s power-train optimization technology would not only have access to info in the car’s immediate vicinity, but info from thousands of nearby vehicles stretching miles along a driver’s intended route.

Ford is still a ways off from commercializing the technology. Kristinsson’s team is actively testing their technology in the labs and developing the complex math that will power it. Their foremost concern beyond getting the tech working is security. Linking a cars infotainment system to a the Internet is one thing, but drilling that connection into the car’s core automotive functions is another. Hacking a vehicle wouldn’t just result in loss of information, but possibly loss of control of the car.

Ford also has to weigh whether such critical access to the engine requires its own secure wireless connection or if power-train management can be made an extension of its Sync platform, which relies on a driver’s own smartphone for wireless data connectivity. Sync has some huge advantages that fit perfectly with the concept of cloud computing. Rather than build a sophisticated software and hardware stack that may become obsolete in a few years—an approach that Cadillac may be considering )—Sync is designed to be an extension of the driver’s phone OS. So as the car’s owner upgrades his smartphone every two years, the hardware and software power of his car is equally enhanced.

Cloud computing gives Ford a similar advantage. As long as the cars computer system is capable of recording and shipping data as well as implementing optimization practices, then Ford doesn’t have to worry about scaling the computational abilities of the car as its technology becomes more complex. The cloud platform would scale while the car remains static.

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