Innovation and inertia -

Innovation and inertia

The automotive business is an old one, but “automotive electronics” would have been an oxymoron just a few decades ago. It was within living memory (well, my living memory) that Cadillac's DeVille got the very first on-board trip computer. It was a rinky-dink little 8-bit job but it sure must have been cool for the people who bought that car.

Nowadays even the average family transportation appliance has a dozen different microprocessor chips in it, controlling everything from the little four-banger's spark timing to the antilock brakes. Wonderfully, the buyer/driver is unaware of any of this. All she knows is that her car runs better, safer, and with better gas mileage than before.

A high-end car like a Mercedes S-class or the (temporarily, one hopes) hideous BMW 7-series has well over 100 microprocessors in everything from the seats to the in-dash navigation system, plus dozens of other nonintuitive locations. Late-model Volvos have more than a kilometer of wiring in them, all to join these dozens of processors into an enormous in-car network. How times have changed.

Paradoxically, auto racing is behind the times when it comes to electronics. Formula 1, Champ Car, the IRL, and even grassroots motorsports like Formula Ford all ban most forms on onboard electronics. Traction control, antilock brakes, brake assist—all these are forbidden in the name of competition. Formula 1 recently banned pit-to-car telemetry after the Monaco Grand Prix, when one team stopped an oil leak remotely, closing a relief valve from the garage without so much as a pit stop.

My own race car, which I race in the Formula Ford class, has no electronics to speak of. Ignition, brakes, valve timing, and everything else all have to be done mechanically using what amounts to 1970s technology. In Formula Ford, these rules help to keep costs down and avoid an electronics “arms race” as each competitor looks for a software advantage. (Not that I would ever do such a thing, of course.)

Even low-cost family sedans sport more electronics than most racers. Jim Turley, seen here in his race car, explains.

Yet those same rules allowed me to install an advanced data-acquisition system that includes a 32-bit microprocessor, several megabytes of flash memory, an internal g-sensor, several A/D converters, a USB interface, and plenty more. The data-acquisition system cost almost as much as a new engine, but I love it. It's bolted to the floor of the car, under my knees, and it records everything that happens during a race. Throttle position, lateral g's, acceleration, wheel speed, engine speed, oil pressure, water temperature, gear ratios—it's all there. I even get a spiffy-looking digital display on my steering wheel. Lots of colored LEDs and a configurable LCD display let me pretend to be Michael Schumacher or Jacques Villeneuve, if only for awhile.

So where's the logic in all of this? It's a matter of goals and differing tastes. Automotive electronics certainly can make a difference in today's road cars, which is all for the better. They can also make a difference in racing cars, which may not be what the crowd, the drivers, or the sponsors want. We're already past the point where today's road cars are more sophisticated than race cars. But that's okay. Put the electronics where they'll do the most good, and where the volume is most attractive, and the market will do the rest.

Reader Response My vintage race bike has one battery, one ignition coil and a contact braker + total of 3 ft of electric wire. It's sure more reliable than my dad's 740i Beemer. There are few 64bit TI DSP's on my desk. Any suggestions on how can I use them to make my vintage racer go faster?

– DanEmbedded systems Eng

Even the Tony Hawk Skateboard from Mattel comes with Tyco R/C's Adaptive Control System and a high-tech microprocessor. What's next? My ballpoint pen might become embedded with a gyro so that I don't “Swoosh” my J's too much! Ha!

– Steve KingEngr.

Recap: Jim Turley owns a race car. Here is a picture of it. He also hates the 7-series.

-Larry P.

Response from managing editor:
LOL. Excellent response. Yes, I see what you mean. In all fairness to Mr. Turley, I’m the one who insisted on the photo because it was free and I had a space to fill. He has a healthy ego but not that healthy.

– Susan Rambo

The argument, “…these rules help to keep costs down and avoid an electronics ‘arms race’ as each competitor looks for a software advantage…”, is the worst of all possible red herrings that I've encountered, even within my own sanctioning body (NHRA). Software is the most democratizing of all technologies and has been the core of driving the cost of consumer products to zero over the past, at least, 30 years. The contention that this will somehow magically change course in motorsports and relegate it to the sport of “kings” is preposterous. How many kids have you seen with laptops hooked up to their cars?

– Fran Delahanty

I'd prefer to drive a 7-series to JT's car. Also, I think F1 is concerned that with the “Driver Assistance” technology advances, teams may be tempted to design-out the driver.

– Simon Arthur

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