Computers refine the job of driving a car

In a dazzling display of technological genius, the 1980-model Continental Mark VI does everything for the driver but pay the bill at the pump. The driver doesn't even have to use a key to get into his locked car.

Within the next few years there may be a voice synthesizer on board to tell the driver when something is wrong with his car. "Warning, low fuel," it might chirp, or: "Check the brakes."

Clearly, automotive electronics has taken off like a shot, partly because of the sharply lower cost of the components themselves but also because of the industry's need to keep up with federal government directives on emissions and better fuel economy on the road.

In the 1980-model cars, for example -- especially the higher-priced cars -- you can find electronic wizardry galore.

Electronics are used in (1) information systems, (2) convenience systems, (3) entertainment systems, and (4) control functions.

With emissions and fuel-economy standards pressing the automotive engineers against the wall, they're turning increasingly to electronics for more precise engine control.

Both the Continental Mark VI and the Lincoln sedan use an exclusive Ford-developed four-speed automatic transmission which Ford says will increase the mileage by up to 4 miles per gallon. The Automatic Overdrive Transmission (AOT), as it's called, shifts into play when the car reaches 40 miles an hour.

Microprocessors are being used increasingly by carmakers to mix the air and fuel flow into the engine, control speed, and tell the motorist when the antifreeze level is low or when it's time to change the oil in the crankcase. The chips also are designed to shift gears and keep a car on the level in a tight bend in the road.

Sensors, scattered all over the engine compartment of the car, feed a continuous flow of data to the computer, which keeps a tight control on all the variables of the engine, thus optimizing its operation and reducing the flow of pollutants out the tailpipe.

Already on the market are devices for self-dimming headlights, air-conditioning controls, and safety systems that monitor fluid levels, tire pressures, bulb failure, doors ajar, and brake wear. Besides, the gush of new devices is providing a lot of fun to the motorist at the same time.

Ford Motor Company's five-button electronic door lock is a good example. After you code the computer yourself -- five numbers that you won't likely forget -- you're all set to go. Punch in the code and the driver's door unlocks. Push another button and the right-side door unlocks. Press still another button and the trunk lid pops up. To lock the car up tight, punch the two buttons on the far right. Easy, eh?

Of course, if for some reason you forget the code number or the system fails to work, you still can use the key to unlock the doors and the trunk.

Perhaps the most futuristic gadget around --ville, for example -- is the electronic instrument panel that does everything for the driver but butter the toast.

"It represents the forefront of space-age technology in the automobile," reports Jerome G. Rivard, chief engineer at Ford's electrical and electronics division.

For one thing, the electronic dash includes a digital speedometer as well as an electronic bar chart to indicate just how much fuel is left in the tank. And if you want to know exactly how far you can drive with the gas on hand, you go to the electronic message center and punch one of a dozen or more buttons. Instantly, you may be told you can go 192 miles before running out of gas.

As you change your driving pattern and the miles-per-gallon rises or falls, the number readjusts up or down, thus reflecting an up-to-the-minute report on the fuel situation on board.

The message center, in fact, can spell out 36 messages about the condition of the car, plus an abundance of trip data -- how far you still have to go to your destination, your estimated time of arrival, average miles per gallon of fuel used, average miles per hour, and the like.

Such systems are designed to provide motorists with vehicles that are more fuel efficient and safer.

Cadillac, for one, offers a computerized climate-control system this year which uses a digital display to indicate the temperature setting. A microprocessor juggles the speed of the blower fan, heating, and air conditioning so the system works efficiently and very unobtrusively.

For 1980, Chrysler Corporation has fitted all its cars with diagnostic plugs, whether they use an engine computer or not. Volkswagen has used such a system for years. GM's engine-control system carries a diagnostic checkout system on board.

No doubt about it, the automotive electronic revolution is well on its way and is reaching into areas that even the most farseeing engineers of a few years ago could not reach.

A major reason for the onrush of electronics, of course, is the sharp improvement in the reliability of the parts. An auto environment is tough, engineers say. Getting parts that stand up to the demands of the road under such widely variable conditions has been a devastating problem at best. The auto industry, in fact, had been downright skeptical about electronics till not too long ago, feeling they might never have a major application to the motor vehicle.

All that has changed, however. Nonetheless, the battle is not over.

"We still have mechanical problems," asserts Richard D. Rossio, executive engineer for body electrical at Chrysler. "Terminals still break," he says, "connectors fail, and short circuits occur."

To assure the continued operation of a car, engineers have built a "fail soft" capability into the systems so that, in event of a computer goof on the road, a motorist can still drive the car till he can have the malfunction repaired.

Looking down the road, General Motors vice-president Martin J. Caserio sees an almost unlimited potential for electronic technology in cars.

"The on-board computer is a fact of life," he asserts. "Virtually every GM car will have one in 1981," he adds. In fact, it appears that the entire automotive industry is committed to the technology to some degree.

As part of this commitment the current debate among engineers seems to be whether a central microcomputer or a series of satellite units, either independent or linked up to a central computer, is best for automotive control functions.

At present, automobile electronics employ an independent satellite system. However, up to now the industry has not had the extensive engine controls that required such sophisticated processing.

A central unit usually costs less, not only because it has fewer total electronic components, but also because the cost of packaging and assembly to the automobile is reduced. In addition, a single central microcomputer system is usually more reliable than several satellite computers because there are fewer components involved.

On the other hand, declares GM's Mr. Caserio, a satellite system has redundant capabilities for critical functions.

"Theft-deterrent systems are becoming more important, particularly in urban areas," he adds. "With an on-board computer, incorporating electronic starting codes becomes relatively easy.

"If radar braking systems become practicable, adaptive braking, collision avoidance provisions, and headway control could add to their sophistication."

Perhaps the first step in this direction would be an obstacle warning system based on elementary radar or ultrasonic techniques. The logic for these applications is not particularly difficult for an on-board computer, but the rest of the system will require significant technological advances."

Further, "low-cost logic may also make it possible to design a 'smart seat' which would permit adjustment for different-sized people. The computer would remember their positions and automatically reset for the appropriate person."

Of course, there'sa big risk to the electronic dashboard, as I've discovered with the Continental Mark VI which I've been driving for the last few days. Indeed, it's great fun to punch the buttons to discover how far you can drive before the tank runs dry, how many miles you may be averaging to a gallon of gas , or even your estimated time of arrival at where you want to go.

But how about another button down there, someone in the office suggests, which reminds you to keep your eye on the road?

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