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An employee drives a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile, equipped with Autopilot hardware and software, hands-free on a highway in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on Monday, Oct. 27, 2015. Tesla started equipping the Model S with hardware -- radar, a forward-looking camera, 12 long-range sensors, GPS -- to enable the autopilot features about a year ago. (Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)
An employee drives a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile, equipped with Autopilot hardware and software, hands-free on a highway in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on Monday, Oct. 27, 2015. Tesla started equipping the Model S with hardware -- radar, a forward-looking camera, 12 long-range sensors, GPS -- to enable the autopilot features about a year ago. (Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

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How cars have become rolling computers Add to ...

The information technology age has transformed the world in a generation but arguably no single part of it, except maybe communication, has seen as much change as the automobile.

Within half a normal lifetime, computerization has revolutionized not only how cars work and how they’re made, but how we view them – less mechanical devices and more electronic appliances.

“Already some people will tell you that a modern vehicle is like a computer on wheels,” says Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “That is true and it is becoming even more true.”

Want more proof? The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has become as important a venue for auto makers as Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

The story is far from over as we move into the world of autonomous, always-connected vehicles.

The first electronic control units (ECUs) showed up in mass-production GM and Ford vehicles in the 1970s to handle basic functions such as ignition timing and transmission shifting in response to tighter fuel economy and emission regulations.

By the 1980s, more sophisticated computerized engine-management systems enabled the use of reliable electronic fuel-injection systems. They also ignited a renaissance in performance as engineers designed more complex motors to take advantage of the ECU’s precision, confident computer-controlled machine tooling could mass-produce them to the high tolerances necessary.

But it didn’t stop there. ECUs were crucial to the advent of active safety systems such as anti-lock braking, traction and skid-control, where wheel sensors trigger the unit’s reaction to loss of grip.

Soon they migrated into active suspension control, allowing for instantaneous reaction to the car’s changing position on the road and adapting to varying surfaces.

In the last decade or so, they’ve been linked to sonar, radar and laser emitters performing functions such as blind-spot and pedestrian collision warnings, automated breaking and safe distance-keeping via smart cruise control. Sensors also provide parking guidance and fully automated parking, with the aid of an on-board computer tied to brakes, steering and throttle.

In the cabin, telematics rely on computerized integration of electronic devices such as phones and navigation systems.

The average car today can have between 25 and 50 central processing units (CPUs) controlling these functions and more, often networked but sometimes operating independently. The level of sophistication is likely to rise as self-driving vehicles move closer to mass production.

“Cars have taken over from jets in terms of advancements and carrying forward technology,” said Ross McKenzie, managing director of Waterloo University’s Centre for Automotive Research.

It’s not surprising, McKenzie said, based on the fact road vehicles operate in a more crowded environment than aircraft. That’s especially true if your aim is to create fully autonomous vehicles.

“You’re in the sky,” he said. “You’re not worried about road conditions. You’re not worried about other planes as long as the radar says they’re not within a certain vicinity.”

Really, Almost no important component controlled by the driver is mechanical any more, said Wallace.

Steering, braking and throttle control on most newer cars are electric drive-by-wire units, whose inputs are filtered through ECUs, sometimes to enhance the driving experience, other times to help keep drivers from exceeding the limits of their talent.

Except for hard-core gearheads, motorists have generally accepted the evolution of their rides into rolling computers.

It took time to get drivers used to the idea of stomping the brakes on an ABS-equipped car instead of pumping them in an emergency. But the systems have become more subtle and the interventions often undetectable, to the point where a driver might put it down to their own skill behind the wheel.

But will the leap to vehicles capable of fully autonomous operation be similarly smooth? Wallace doubts it will be a seamless transition.

“That’s a misconception because the pathway to full automation is not the same pathway as another driver-assistance system,” he said.

Although Tesla and other auto makers are playing with semi-automated operation using existing systems, they lack the artificial intelligence (AI) that fuses them with a single brain to weigh all the information and make decisions based on that.

The incremental introduction of current systems is making people more comfortable with giving up control in certain situations, such as emergency braking, said Wallace.

“There’s probably still that little extra leap of faith to get to ‘I don’t ever drive,’ “ he said.

As the importance of electronic systems grew, mainstream auto makers began hiring more electrical engineers and IT specialists. But McKenzie said their approach is bound by more than a century of cars-making culture and the need to expend resources on updating existing models. Google, Apple and Tesla, who are making the headlines in self-driving vehicle development, start from a blank page.

“They’re not encumbered by the history and the tradition of what’s gone into making a car,” said McKenzie. “Those two things are intersecting inside the vehicle.”

We may not have long to wait to see who will be first to successfully integrate the two transcendent technologies of the last 100 years.

Wallace said he expects to see autonomous vehicles hit the market by 2019-20, with mass-market availability by about 2025.

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