Perfect partners

Electronics has become an essential ally to the auto industry, with recent innovations such as GPS systems and advanced transponders adding to road safety, says GM’s Rick Wagoner

The automotive and electronics industries have travelled similar paths for a long time, sometimes arm-in-arm.

Way back in 1912, GM introduced the industry’s first electric starter, which replaced the old hand-crank starter. It was the first of many electronic innovations that transformed automobiles from rough-and-tumble horseless carriages to the sophisticated machines that we know and drive today.

The electronics content of the typical automobile has increased by almost 50 per cent over the last five years. And you cannot think about new consumer electronics for long without imagining what automotive applications they might have.

At the same time, it is hard to think about today’s cars without thinking about the electronics they already incorporate — not just radios, DVD players, GPS devices and navigation systems but also the things you cannot see such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and engine control modules.

The auto and electronics industries have worked together for many years and in future we think the two will work even more closely.

If the clearest intersection between the automobile and consumer electronics used to be the radio, today it is telematics. In GM’s case, that means OnStar which, on average, is now interacting with about 85,000 subscribers a day.

In an average month, we respond to about 1,750 automatic crash notifications, 11,000 calls for emergency service and 35,000 roadside assistance calls. To date, OnStar has had more than 82 million subscriber interactions — one interaction about every two seconds.

If OnStar and telematics are connecting cars to the outside world, then one of the next big developments in automotive electronics is connecting cars with other cars electronically, to keep them from connecting physically.

In recent years, advances in electronics have allowed for technologies such as anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control and obstacle detection.

At GM we are working our way up this advanced technology ladder to help our drivers avoid accidents and improve traffic flow. We are now offering a Lane Departure Warning System and a blind-spot alert system on the 2008 Buick Lucerne and 2008 Cadillac STS and DTS.

We are preparing to take it even further through the use of GPS and advanced transponder technology that we believe will revolutionise the driving experience.

We call it V2V, or vehicle-to-vehicle communications. V2V starts with collision avoidance and builds from there. The key difference between V2V and sensor-based ‘vision’ systems is in the electronic communications.

Today’s vision systems send out a signal that determines the speed and location of the vehicle ahead, and directs your car accordingly. It is excellent technology. But the next-generation systems promise to be considerably better because they will use transponders to ‘talk’ to other vehicles within a quarter mile of your vehicle. So if, six cars ahead, somebody in a transponder-equipped vehicle steps on the brakes, in your lane or the lanes on either side of you, your transponder will immediately know that, and start slowing your car before you’re even aware you may need to stop.

This type of technology, which was unheard of 15 years ago, has the potential to minimise traffic jams and, more importantly, greatly reduce highway accidents and fatalities with minimal or possibly even no roadway infrastructure required. And it’s progressing.

Last November, for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, sponsored a contest for ‘sophisticated autonomous vehicles’.

Autonomous driving means that, some day, you could do your email, eat breakfast, apply your make-up, read the newspaper, watch a video… all while commuting to work.

In other words, you could do all the things you do right now while commuting to work… except you could do it safely.

Edited extracts of keynote speech given by GM chief executive Rick Wagoner at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.