RF Technology in Autos
There are few things more compelling for considering the purchase of a new car
than being far from home in your old beater, and having the engine shake and rattle
so violently that people on the roadside stare at you as you drive by. The wisest
of them would have been contemplating taking cover lest a part fly off. I knew the
time for such a catastrophe was nigh, but the hope was that the beast (my 1995 Mercury
Tracer) could be pacified for just a while longer. Alas, with no compression in
cylinder #2, its days are over, and now I have to decide what will replace it. The
model choices are nearly overwhelming, as are the mechanical and electronic options
(RF and otherwise) available for them.
This will be my first new vehicle in more than 25 years.
I am no tree-hugger, but do consider myself to be an environmentally responsible
person, so good gas mileage will be a prime consideration (≥ 30 mpg/48 kmpg). The
Tracer – or Trasher as I affectionately refer(ed) to it – managed about 26 mpg traveling
to and from work, with a 1.9 L engine and an automatic transmission. Based on some
preliminary research, it appears that gas mileage is generally really lousy on most
vehicles, so that reduces the options considerably.
It is dismaying to see that in the year 2007 most vehicles are not getting at
least 30 mpg. Emission control and additional safety structures/device devices are
responsible for about a 10-15% reduction in mileage according to my research, but
come on, with all the computer feedback and engine/transmission technology available,
25 mpg for a mid-size sedan is ridiculous. Even the hybrids barely eek out 40 mpg.
The 1996 Mazda Protégé I had (before somebody ran a stop sign and totaled it) was
getting 40 mpg. Has power train technology and vehicle aerodynamics stood still
for a decade?
Speaking of hybrids, I would really like to buy one, but when considering the
real cost of ownership over the long run and realizing that for most situations
there is very little advantage from a gas mileage perspective of operating one,
the additional expense cannot be justified. Many articles that approach the evaluation
in an intellectually honest way point out the necessity for replacing the battery
banks after about five years and the ecological impact of disposing of the old batteries
in a landfill. The financial cost is on the order of a few thousand dollars, and
the eco cost is a lot of hazardous, heavy metals in a reclamation depot. Most, if
not all, of the lead-acid batteries get shipped to “developing” countries to be
processed by workers who are lucky to be provided with rubber gloves and an exhaust
Some hybrids use NiMH (nickel metal hydride) cells, but they are also full of
heavy metals and are even more expensive to replace. Research is under way for the
use of lithium technology batteries which are more environmentally friendly, but
need to be made less prone to explosion (I have linked to many fire-in-the-pants
cellphone news stories over the years). As with plasma displays and HDTV, I will
let the wealthier amongst us finance the technology development and cost-reduction
before buying one myself. However, I will be the biggest fan (which is actually
a short form of “fanatic”) and enthusiastic promoter of those who perform and underwrite
the financial cost of development.
On to the real topic of this article: RF technology in automotive products. The
science has progressed far beyond having your iPod broadcast over the FM band so
your $2k, eardrum-popping, 500 W stereo system can blast it through a dazzling array
of crossover-networked speakers. Hands-free (Bluetooth) cellphone interfaces are
mere 20th century technology, as are keyless entry systems and radar detectors.
Throughway SpeedPasses for toll booths have been around since the early days of
RFID. OnStar™ emergency reporting systems debuted in the 1990s and satellite radio
in the late 1980s. That was then; this is now.
One of the most impressive developments (IMHO) is the object detection system
that uses radar, sonar, or a combination thereof to gauge the distance to nearby
structures or items to help prevent bumping into the side of a building or running
over a tricycle or most importantly, running over a living being. These systems
have been adapted to assist in tasks like parking where curb distance measurements
are displayed to the driver, and in parallel parking. Taking the science to an extreme,
BMW and Lexus are now running commercials for a car that will parallel park itself
or back into a parking space with no help from the driver.
Collision avoidance systems (CAS) employ radar to survey the area surrounding
a moving vehicle and search for potential hazards like a car moving into your lane
with too little clearance, and vehicle making a sudden stop ahead of you, or a truck
calculated to be on a collision course with you. An appropriately urgent warning
is generated for the driver, and in some cases the CAS will take evasive action
independent of the driver (such as applying the brakes). Both the CAS and the aforementioned
automated parking systems will take a lot of faith on the part of the driver to
allow an inanimate object to basically commandeer the vehicle while in motion.
Somewhat less extreme, but impressive nevertheless, are gadgets like the tire
pressure monitoring system (TPMS) which consists of a MEMS based silicon sensor
and RF transmitter inside each tire (sometimes in the valve stem) that sends real-time
data to a receiver for inclusion in the vehicle health status report. There are
also efforts underway to replace all of the control wiring for electrical systems
in the rear portions of the car with Bluetooth-like communications that will allow
only a single high current bus wire to be distributed to items such as the tail
running, brake, and backup lights, and allowing the local wireless controls to do
the switching. Doing so saves weight and simplifies the wiring harness.
All of the advancements have come about due to the brilliance of the people who
have pioneered MEMS devices and the miniaturization and integration of entire complex
RF systems onto a single piece of silicon or GaAs. Of course, a lot of credit goes
to the manufacturing engineers who have figured out how to produce the products
in high volumes and at an affordable price. Such feats are inspiring to the next
generation of engineers and scientists who will take it upon themselves to push
the boundaries even farther. Finally, some of the whiz-bang technology that was
promised us for the 1990s, by magazines like Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated,
are coming to fruition.
…well, except for the 100 mpg cars.