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Intel readies for programmable smart cars

Building multi-core chips that could runs apps that drive cars, find parking garages and complain about potholes

BARCELONA -- Intel researchers envision a future of driverless smart cars that can be updated at any time with the latest technology and apps.

Intel hopes to play a major role in the new age, creating energy efficient and small multi-core chips that can make cars increasingly smart.

"In the next generation, we are talking about quad core," said Michael Konow, an Intel engineering manager based in Germany.

Enno Luebbers, a research scientist at Intel Labs Europe, shows an Intel-based smart car system. Running a low-power processor similar to Intels Atom chip, the system is running auto-related apps, such as navigation, along with an Android-based entertainment system that has games and movies. (Photo by Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld)

"We are looking far ahead to safe driving cars," he said. "We would need a lot of compute power for a car to understand that if there's a ball rolling on the street, there might be a kid running after it. This is very, very difficult. As humans, we have intuition. We need to find a way to get this intelligence into the system."

Konow, who presented a smart car demo at Intel's European Research and Innovation Conference here today, told Computerworld that the auto industry is several years away from having many-core chips in cars, but that lab work on the technology is well underway.

"A car that drives autonomously and has a 100% guarantee that an accident won't happen would require a lot more compute performance," he said. "How much? We don't really know yet."

Today's cars, said Konow and Enno Luebbers, a research scientist at Intel Labs Europe, are getting overloaded with single-core chips. That's a problem, because there's not enough room for more chips while user demand for more functionality continues to grow.

In the past, adding a new function required adding a new chip, said Konow. In the future, "you can have more than a 100 single cores in one high-end car. You cannot keep up this trend."

With so many single-core chips stuffed into one car, the on-board compute system is becoming far too large and complicated, he said.

The goal now is to save power and space, "which is critical because there is basically no space left," added Konow. "[Researchers] are trying to come up with weird shapes of boxes to squeeze them into the tiny amount of space left."

When automakers can integrate multi-core chips - from quad-core to 8-core, 12-core and more - into vehicles, they can add a lot more functionality, such as updated navigation options, more safety features and social applications.

Today you have to buy cars that have updated apps. With a programmable car, a user could simply download new apps or upgrade what they already have, say Intel execs.

"It's almost like, 'what applications wouldn't you want in your car?'" asked Intel CTO Justin Rattner. "Once the car is a programmable platform, you'll see all kinds of innovation."

Rattner noted that the smarter cars could work together to make commutes easier.

For instance, cars could have sensors, cameras and computer chips programmed to report pot holes to city crews, and to report traffic jams or accidents to other cars in the area.

In-car apps also could tell drivers which local parking garage has spaces available, or if any of their friends are driving nearby.

"We'll start thinking of our cars more like we think of our laptops and phones - updateable," said Luebbers.

"For me, it's about synthesis," said Martin Curley, director of Intel Labs Europe. "We're thinking about how these can be integrated into a system of systems that helps us achieve a sustainable society."

Luebbers said a key challenge for engineers working on smarter cars is to ensure safety and security. It's one thing for an entertainment system to be breached; it's another for hackers to access a rear-view monitoring system, for instance.

"One of the main challenges is integrating functions of different criticality," he said. "You have to treat the testing and development differently."

And a higher level of security comes into play when they start talking about a connected car.

"Over the last 20 or 30 years, [automobile] systems weren't built with security in mind. It was not required," said Konow. "[Automakers] were looking to save costs. They did not need to design it to be secure."

Widespread connectivity, though, presents the potential for significant problems, he said. "[Automakers] don't want to reengineer a whole system, but have to find a way to protect systems from external attacks."

Luebbers also noted that car makers have traditionally focused on making sure vehicles did not fail by accident. Now they have to focus on making sure they do not fail because of a digital attack.

That, he said, forces OEMs to think about security in a new way.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.


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