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From Mechanical to Technological: The Evolution of Smart Cars

As cars become increasingly reliant on hardware and software to function, they’ll also rely on connected infrastructure and a new breed of mechanics to keep them safe.

(TNS) —  LIMA, Ohio — They need to talk. No, not him and her. It’s your car. Your car and the road.

The ability for that to happen is what’s driving the change from standard cars to autonomous vehicles.

Research into autonomous vehicles is already unleashing a change in education and igniting concerns among owners of small repair shops.

What makes a self-driving car work is less about the mechanics and more about the controls.

“It’s about the software and hardware within the vehicle and how they interact with the sensors; whether it’s Lidar sensors, radar sensors; those types of visual systems, and how those feedback into the computer systems of the vehicle. ” said Maryn Weimer, senior associate director of Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research in Columbus.

Lidar is similar to radar, but instead of sending out radio waves, it sends out pulses of infrared light millions of times a second. The information is compiled into a real time, three-dimensional map, Weimer said. The computer system, called “dspace hardware,” is located in the back of the vehicle and handles the majority of the computations for the sensors. The sensors recognize elements in the environment and specific responses are programmed into the system which triggers responses, she said.

Smart technology, like smart paint, sensors in road signs and other autonomous vehicles in the vicinity, make autonomous vehicles safer by giving their sensors something to talk to, Weimer said.

“Right now there’s not a lot of things that talk back to the vehicles,” she said. “But as you look at more integrated streetlights, and paint. … There’s even smart paint now that the vehicles is able to talk to so it knows this is the center of the road and this paint indicates that maybe there’s construction.”

At this time there are very few roads with smart infrastructure in Ohio. The U.S. 33 Smart Corridor, connecting Dublin and Marysville, is such roadway. The 35-miles long corridor has a fiber optic cable embedded into it which allows autonomous test vehicles to talk to its surround making it safer to operate, Weimer said.


Programming is just as important for autonomous operation as sensors. Something OSU engineering professors are working on is Ethical Moral Algorithms Weimer said.

“We actually have an entire team that works with not only engineers and the technical folks, but also with the human behaviors and psychology people, so there’s a combined team focusing on building those algorithms,” she said. “As humans we understand we are making the best choices we can. So if I swerve to miss the child, but hit an elderly woman, we had to make a choice and we accept that. We’re not okay if the car makes the choice for us.”

The team is working on deciding what the priorities of autonomous vehicles should be; if the vehicles should prioritize the life of the operator over anyone else or have programming allowing it to make judgment calls.

Another subject being tested at OSU is programming autonomous vehicles to recognize the difference between a patch of leaves blowing across the roadway and a child running across the road chasing a ball, Weimer said. This programming question also includes programming the vehicles to recognize none verbal ques like people waving the drive on at a four-way stop or cross walk.

Educating mechanics

As vehicles continue to integrate computer systems into their systems, it changes the approach University of Northwestern Ohio is taking to educating students interested in getting into automotive work, said Jason Duvall, Automotive Instructor at University of Northwestern Ohio.

“The automotive industry in general is constantly changing and new technologies and systems and stuff are coming out,” he said. “So we’re constantly updating our curriculum and looking at what were covering in class and what we need to be covering for the newer vehicles.”

Duvall said electronics and computers have become a bigger part of automotive classes because they have become so integrated into the newer vehicles and it will become more and more important as vehicles move toward electronic and autonomous. Newer vehicles have become much more difficult for the average person to repair on their own and that will continue to be the case as well, he said.

“People would replace their own tire rod ends or they would replace their own oil pan gasket because it was leaking,” Duvall said. “Also, what we call the independent shops, that are not manufacture affiliated, they would do a lot of that stuff. The day of a person working on their own vehicle or somebody like that (independent shops), that is getting harder for them to do.”

Small shops

John Waller, owner of American Mall Auto Care in Lima, said as the technology for vehicles continues to advance, eventually it will become so expensive just to purchase the equipment and information needed to repair newer vehicles.

“Used to be manufacturers released a book with all the information to fix the vehicles,” Waller said. “You just get the books and you had all the information needed to repair them. Right now I pay $300 a month to have access to repair information.”

Even paying that $300 doesn’t mean he even gets all the repair information because there’s a federal law requiring manufacturers to release at least 80 percent of the information to mechanics. The manufacture companies release all the information mechanics need to know to fix the mechanical parts of vehicles and hold back on how to fix the computer systems so small shops can’t work on those issues, he said.

For instance, Waller said the newer Ford Fusion model has an electric parking break in the back. If work needs to be done on it, a mechanic must first enter the computer system and set it to service mode. If that step isn’t done the brake system will be damaged. The extra time and knowledge needed to make these types of repairs in newer vehicles will probably increase the cost of repairs in any other place in Ohio, but in Lima the automotive repair business is so cutthroat you have to charge 25 percent cheaper to stay in business, Waller said.

Waller also said the days of the average person replacing their own parts in vehicles is coming to a close. Some newer vehicles come with a touch screen which control the functions in the vehicles, Waller said. If that touch screen breaks down it can cause a serious complication for the owner because you can’t get the functions to operate without it. Replacements touch screens cost around $2,500 plus the cost of having it professionally installed. And going to a junk yard to purchased one from a demolished model for cheap isn’t a possibility because the computer in the touch screen cannot be reprogrammed. The only option is to purchase a new one.

Waller said the new shiny technology is exciting and fun, but that all changes when it stops working. Manufacturers will probably be the only places to get replacements and instillation because smaller, individually owned automotive repairs shops might not be able to afford the equipment to fix it.

“For me it’s [widespread autonomous vehicle use] down the road 10 or more years,” Waller said. “It gives me plenty of time to learn. Whether I can afford it, that’s another thing.”

©2018 The Lima News (Lima, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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