In gear for the future

The technology that keeps Formula One cars on the track will soon help everyday motorists to avoid breakdowns, find a place to park their cars and even book a hotel room. Andy Oldfield sees how the RAC is helping to change motoring
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Gridlock is rarely a problem for Formula One cars on the circuit at Silverstone. Although mechanical failure and crashes are likely, that's not why the RAC started a three-year sponsorship deal with last Sunday's RAC British Grand Prix. The motoring organisation, in its centenary year, besides being a rescue service and organising body for British motor sport, has its sights firmly set on developing technologies and what they are likely to mean in the near future for transport in general and its members in particular.

"The transformation in the next 10 years will be more dramatic than the last 50 years of motoring," says Nigel Davies, RAC's project director of intelligent transport systems and services. "Stand by for enhanced cruise control, anti-collision radar, head-up windscreen displays, overtaking aids, sensors that stop drivers nodding off by detecting eyelid flicker rate, and ultraviolet headlights and thermal imaging systems to improve visibility."

Formula One and Silverstone may seem exotic points of focus in all this, but links are established between manufacturers such as Ford and the RAC. The links are technical, but pragmatic, too. As technical innovations trickle down from the rarefied testing bed of Formula One into production cars, breakdown and repair organisations need to keep abreast in order to cope with what they find on the roads.

For instance, a buzz-phrase in Formula One is "real-time telemetry" - transmitting readings from sensors in various parts of the car back to a computer for instant performance diagnosis. The Stewart-Ford team have this down to a fine art. As the youngest Formula One team, they relied heavily on computer technology to design their car and get it from computer model to working machine in about 11 months. To improve the performance of the car in races, they use telemetry software running on a network of Hewlett-Packard PCs and laptops in the pits that are connected via microwave and UHF radio to sensors in the engines, gearboxes and chassis of their two cars.

While the cars are out on the track, measurements of pressures, temperatures, suspension variables, braking, steering and exhaust-gases profiles are displayed on screen and monitored by a team of data analysts. When the drivers, Rubens Barrichello and Jan Magnussen, come into the pits, their mechanics and engineers already know of any faults brewing or adjustments that need to be made.

Built into the rig that is used for refuelling and tyre-changing is an LCD that makes the computer information available to the drivers, who might have radioed ahead to have, for example, overlays of braking data ready for display so that they can confirm or modify their judgement about different racing lines and braking patterns for a particular bend against an objective and detailed measure.

Current production cars already have computer engine management systems, but within 10 years they will be upgraded with real-time telemetry and enhanced remote diagnostic capabilities. According to David Bizley, RAC's technical director and chief engineer, this will radically alter the relationship between the RAC and its members. "Just about all of the major motoring manufacturers are fitting or planning to fit satellite-based automatic vehicle location through the Global Satellite Positioning system, and they're linking that to a GSM [global system for mobile communications] mobile phone as a communicator," he says. "And that provides you with a basic platform which allows you to do lots of things.

"It allows you to improve the quality of emergency services and breakdown response. It's exactly what we need when we want to interrogate a car's remote diagnostics, and we can get into services where we can start to tell members what's wrong with their car before they tell us. We can get into preventive mode rather than cure mode."

Even though that system is still undergoing trials, the RAC has the computer technology in place to handle it. The logistics of co-ordinating its resources in the forms of patrol vehicles and the needs of broken-down customers has been the driving force behind a system for which the original cost in 1987 was pounds 40m, but which has been subject to many millions of pounds in additional investment. Its latest incarnation, Computer Aided Rescue Service 2, uses digitised Ordnance Survey maps supplemented by custom databases to enable members who don't know where they are to be located from descriptions of roads and landscape features. In operation, it's fast and impressive - and has helped them to cut down the average response time and how long it takes to make repairs. With the addition of GSP and smart-car diagnostic systems, which it is designed to accommodate, it should be even more efficient.

Diverse, too. As the RAC reinvents itself for the future of motoring, it sees itself using the same system to deliver all sorts of information. It can download information to the on-board computers of its recovery vans, where 486 computers with 300Mb hard disks are linked to CD-Roms, but it can also be used to transmit to customers' cars answers to the sorts of things that prey on their minds more than the possibility of a breakdown: Where's the nearest parking? Can I book a hotel? Where's the nearest burger bar and toilet? How do I get from the motorway to an address in the middle of town?

What it offers is information from a computer system that is fast, accurate and up to date. "If you're leaving London for Birmingham and not only is the M1 blocked but there's a problem on the M40, we will download a route that suggests you park your car near Euston railway station; and because we know your itinerary, which you put into your computer at home before you left, we've actually booked your car park space for you, we've booked your ticket and reserved your seat on the train. When you get off at the other end there'll be a taxi waiting for you," Davies explains. "In the future, we'd like to download all this on to a hand-held unit like a Nokia 9000 which you can take out of the car and that will give you a map showing you which platform you'll get off the train, and a simple map to the bus stop or taxi rank."

If government forecasts are accurate, it is information that will be a necessity rather than a convenience. The Department of Transport calculates that the average driver spends about two days a year sitting in traffic jams now, but by 2005 that is likely to be three weeks. If terminal gridlock is what lies ahead, there is pressure on all sectors of the travel industry to co-operate in order to stay in business. The old knights of the road plan to facilitate that co-operation by becoming information providers on the superhighway as they evolve into journey management specialists rather than just a motorists' breakdown service.

The information technology fixes, which should have the effect of reducing road traffic, mean that "you could avoid congestion without ever having known it existed", according to Bizley. Potentially emerging technologies will make driving safer, less stressful and more enjoyable. But when your car breaks down and dies, the RAC van that comes to help will not only have CD-Roms and virtual reality hardware, it will also have a length of hefty tow rope or be able to summon a car transporter - the sort of technology favoured even today to get broken down hi-tech Formula One cars back to the pitsn