Remote support system enables heals on wheels

A project is underway that will give cars the ability to self-heal electronic faults through intelligent embedded systems and wireless connections to remote support centres.

That is the aim of researchers at Warwick University’s Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre (WIMRC), who are working with Jaguar Land Rover and IBM to create the so-called ‘self-healing car’.

Researcher Mark Amor-Segan, an electrical engineer at Warwick, said remote support centres would be alerted to faults with an electronic device and wirelessly send software to fix the problem.

He cited Volvo, which in 2006 recalled thousands of cars in North America to fix a defect in the electronic throttle module that was causing engines to lose power.

The solution, Amor-Segan said, was a simple software download but owners were forced to take their cars to dealerships to have it installed.

He said: ‘If they had the ability to do this remotely through a software download it would have saved millions of dollars.’

Amor-Segan said the reason this technology isn’t currently available in cars is their electrical architecture contains dozens of electronic control units (ECUs) built bespoke to the component they control. When a fault occurs, the ECU logs a unique identifier code.

The information is stored until the car is taken to a service centre where the identifier can be decoded to reveal the fault.

What vehicles lack, added Amor-Segan, is a vehicle-wide management system to oversee the health of the entire electrical architecture.

He said: ‘At the moment each module is trying to diagnose a particular fault or a particular area of the vehicle, but in complete isolation. As a consequence it generally gets things wrong because the fault may have been the result of something else happening across the other side of the vehicle on a different module, but because it can’t see that module or co-ordinate its activities with that module it logs failures and error codes.’

Amor-Segan explained that ECUs require a generic design so they can handle multiple functions.

He added: ‘The ECU controlling the ABS, engine management system, heating and ventilation modules could all be generic processing elements.

‘So if one of them is to fail, it could either take software that is running on that failed component and re-host it on a different one or it could prioritise all of the functions in the vehicle and, for example, sacrifice the CD player in order to have the air-conditioning re-instated.’

Amor-Segan said the other feature lacking in cars is the ability to remotely receive and download software. However, he said this is something that could be easily integrated through wireless links such as GPRS, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, provided privacy and security issues can be resolved.

The research team at the WIMRC and Jaguar Land Rover plan to unveil a demonstrator vehicle in two years’ time that can perform diagnosis, isolate a fault, download software and safely recover.

Amor-Segan said this could be available in cars within a decade but mass adoption by the automotive industry may prove difficult.

He said: ‘Cost is a driving force in the automotive world and making changes to an ECU’s software and to an electrical architecture in the vehicle are hugely costly things to undertake.

‘What we have to do is prove to the automotive manufacturers that there is a business case in doing this. The cost of making changes will be paid 10-fold or 100-fold in terms of reduced warranty bills and maintenance and servicing costs.’