General Motors is building a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to map out the future of vehicle communications and computing, a broad group of technologies that promises to revolutionize the driving experience.
GM is investing $3 million during the next three years to set up a new lab at Carnegie Mellon, one of the world's leading centers of electronics and software engineering. The Pittsburgh school will work closely with the automaker's research and development staff in Warren, Mich.
Roger Fruechte (pronounced FRICK-tee), director of electrical and controls integration at GM Research & Development and Planning, will manage the lab project for the automaker. Initially, the vehicle information technology lab will focus on four areas:
1. Wireless and wired multimedia networks: Designing safe and reliable systems to handle news, entertainment and communications in the vehicle.
2. Human-computer interaction: Building an easy-to-use interface between the driver and the in-dash computer.
3. Dependable embedded systems: Ensuring that the electronics used to build new products meet automotive standards for reliability and durability.
4. Design methodologies: Eliminating potentially dangerous software glitches as the volume of software code on vehicles rapidly grows.
Fruechte, 59, said GM is looking at voice-recognition technology as a key to the driver-interface question. Speech commands allow a driver to keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road while doing such things as navigating and answering e-mail. Auto companies and suppliers developing voice-recognition systems are working to upgrade the technology so it can work faultlessly in noisy vehicle interiors.
The driver interface will determine how well new technologies are received in the marketplace, Fruechte said.
'This is an extremely important area,' he said. 'If we don't do this right the first time, it could set the whole thing back.'
At Carnegie Mellon, the new partnership with GM already is generating a lot of interest among students and faculty, said T.E. Schlesinger, a professor at the school's department of electrical and computer engineering. The opportunity: transform today's vehicle into a mobile computing platform that can interact with other vehicles and remote networks.
'All of a sudden, GM is beginning to look at itself as an information technology company,' Schlesinger said.
Carnegie Mellon also could serve as an invaluable talent pool for the automaker as it seeks to reinvent itself for the Internet age. Talented young software engineers are in much demand in today's job market.
Schlesinger said the school annually receives more than 1,000 applications from around the world for the 40 to 50 openings in his department's graduate program. The trick, he conceded, will be to convince students that GM - and the auto industry - can offer young engineers good opportunities compared to other high-tech industries.
Expect to see some interesting prototypes and experimentation as GM researchers and Carnegie Mellon students and faculty members tackle the vehicle world together.
Creative possibilities abound. Some researchers at the school recently took a laptop computer and hooked it up to an off-the-shelf Radio Shack digital camera to create a device that scans the faces of drivers. It potentially could be used to determine if a driver is too drowsy or simply isn't paying attention to the road.
Schlesinger predicted: 'We're going to put lots of cool stuff on vehicles.'