Detroit automotive tech turns to network engineering

America's vision of the Detroit factory town may need an update as the automotive capital pursues a future in connected cars.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor

America's vision of the Detroit factory town may have to give way to one of software developers and network engineers. According to research firm Strategy Analytics, the market for automotive electronic systems is expected to grow from $170 billion in 2011 to $263 billion in 2016. And as cars continue to rely more heavily on electronics, the nature of automotive research and development is changing dramatically.

At Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, Professor Hongwei Zhang illustrates just how far the auto industry has come. Zhang's research focuses on connected cars, and specifically the performance of heterogeneous networks needed to support dynamic broadband connectivity on the road. The impact of his research is two-fold. Zhang's findings have the potential to influence both vehicle and telecommunications infrastructure design.

The idea of creating a future of connected highways raises a series of complex issues. Connected cars have to be able to switch seamlessly and consistently between mobile broadband networks and maintain a level of performance that ensures ongoing vehicle safety. Yet, while performance is critical, increasing volumes of data from in-car entertainment systems and embedded sensor networks create added strain on the communications infrastructure.

There is also an issue of data processing power. Supporting infrastructure needs enough computing capacity to tackle all of the new information pouring out of networked vehicles. Without it, there are limits to the safety and efficiency advantages connected cars can provide.

Professor Zhang's research combines networking technologies in an attempt to determine the best support structure for a complex web of future vehicle communications. His current project integrates WiMAX mobile broadband with GENI engineering. GENI stands for the Global Environment for Network Innovations, and is, to put it very simply, the basis for next-generation internet development. (See more on GENI here.)

Zhang's project involves connecting a multi-sector WiMAX network in downtown Detroit to the national GENI infrastructure. Once that deployment is complete, Zhang and other researchers will be able to run connected vehicle performance tests in a real-world environment, and enable new vehicle applications based on next-generation internet capabilities.

From a consumer perspective, new connected car features will cover everything from entertainment and web connectivity to vehicle safety and efficiency improvements. Among emerging automotive trends is the concept of active safety, where vehicles respond dynamically to changes in the environment and act automatically to protect a car's occupants. Embedded sensors are also being tested to support new fuel economy features, which could impact both how cars operate individually, and how groups of cars behave on the road.

Part of Zhang's ongoing investigative work also involves collaborating with researchers at Ford Motor Company. Ford is working on a sensing and application development platform called OpenXC. If such a platform is successful, it could speed up the application development process and bring more advanced connected-car features to market faster. Zhang says the goal is to have OpenXC integrated with GENI in 2013. In that case, software developers and network engineers would be able to work in parallel on new research, and on laying the groundwork for smarter transportation.

The role of software and network engineering in the automotive industry is growing swiftly, and that means Detroit, as the automotive capital of the United States, has to evolve just to survive. There are challenges ahead, from recruiting engineering talent to finding the necessary investment funds to carry out further development. However, while obstacles are real, changes to the auto industry also offer major avenues for growth, and give Detroit an opportunity to remake its image in a whole new light.

Images courtesy of Sam Beebe on Flickr, and OpenXC

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