In-Vehicle Computers: Logging on
Per Holmberg from JLT Mobile Computers looks at how to meet commercial users’ expectations for in-vehicle computing
The proliferation of always connected devices and the trend for BYOD (bring your own device) within commerce means technology is now an integral part of every aspect of modern life. It’s no wonder, then, that there is a growing demand for vehicles to become more connected too.
Bluetooth already allows smart phones to connect seamlessly to infotainment systems in the car, enabling features such as talking text alerts and, of course, hands-free communications. Some systems also enable the car to use a phone as a data modem, for updating traffic conditions or PoIs (points of interest). This bi-directional connection is just the beginning, but how will commercial and industrial operators make the most of in-vehicle computing?
The need for in-vehicle computing for commercial use is driven by both economic and environmental factors. For example, by route optimisation and green driving, CO2 emissions can be reduced at the same time as costs are saved. The technology can and is being used for fleet tracking systems that make use of GPS to provide field-based data that can either be monitored in real-time using cellular connectivity or stored locally for later analysis. These are more complex systems that require a reliable backhaul, most likely realised by a cellular network. As such they would typically be offered by a service provider specialising in this; they may also design and manufacture the hardware or be an agent for specialist ODMs.
To meet this growing demand for in-vehicle computing, there are companies specialising in developing black box computers, designed to be installed permanently in a car and hard-wired into its power system. This approach has some obvious benefits; it provides a fast and relatively simple way to add computing power to a vehicle, making use of the car’s own power supply.
Such systems invariably use some form of modular design and are, in effect, mini-desktop PCs running either a version of Windows or an open source operating system such as Linux or Android. Although these systems have a reasonable level of performance and convenience, they don’t necessarily address the challenge of keeping up with technology evolution. The life time and upgrade cycle of computer hardware is far shorter than the life cycle of a commercial vehicle, making the installed computer old pretty fast, and preventing the software application from being upgraded and keeping up with new functionality.
To meet the challenge of upgradeability, there is another class of in-vehicle computers – mobile vehicle mount terminals (VMTs) – that are used to increase productivity and efficiency. Similar to black box computers, VMTs are often PC-based platforms running an open operating system such as Windows Embedded or Linux. However, they integrate the CPU, memory, power supply, 3G connectivity and more, with a display and touch screen into a single mobile unit, similar to a tablet PC.
In accordance with a user’s needs, these systems are able to integrate to a vehicle’s electronic systems through, for example, a Can bus connection allowing operators and manufacturers to gain access to vehicle data. Because the VMT is mobile and not integrated in the vehicle, it can easily be upgraded when new and higher performance hardware is available. The mobility also improves serviceability significantly, which is a key factor for a commercial user. This class of in-vehicle computer has altogether different requirements.
A key aspect of this sector is design. For commercial users looking to integrate mobile computing into their fleet or commercial vehicles, in-vehicle PCs of the form described have, for some time, been the only option. However, the introduction of smart phones and tablet computers has had a far reaching effect on every aspect of computing; the capability of mobile technology means more users are questioning the need for conventional desktop PCs and the same could be said for the burgeoning in-vehicle PC market.
While the opportunity is clear, shrinking the technology down to become truly mobile, as opposed to permanently installed, involves challenges; form factor is crucially important, as there will likely be minimal room for a VMT, particularly in the cab of a commercial vehicle. Another crucial aspect is ruggedness; consumer tablets would not be able to withstand the harsh environments that commercial vehicles are used in, but it is exactly this kind of vehicle that could benefit most from in-vehicle computing. Tablet-like PCs designed for harsh environments are desirable but not as readily available as their mini-desktop-like counterparts, however some manufacturers focussed on the design and manufacture of rugged mobile computers are innovatively addressing these challenges.
A key aspect of that design involves maximising the available size while offering the latest technology, such as a large 25cm multi-touch-sensitive screen that can be viewed in a range of conditions from direct sunlight to complete darkness. This can be difficult in a form factor that must comprise processing, memory and interface technology, power regulation and a battery. Thermal management in such a form factor also becomes a significant consideration; forced air cooling is not really an option, relying instead solely on convection and therefore often dictating the use of an optimally designed metal frame.
A further aspect that can often be crucial is how the tablet will be mounted in the vehicle. Most examples of rugged tablet computers available today use the Vesa mounting system; the same system used to mount LCD TVs to walls. This clearly has implications when being adopted for mobile technology, where removal of the tablet may be necessary on a frequent basis.
A better method may be to use a docking system that allows faster removal of the tablet. This also means that any hardwired connections – such as 3G and GPS antennas, USB, RS232/422 or Can bus – can remain connected to the docking station even when the VMT is removed.
Driving up efficiency isn’t just good for commerce, it’s good for the environment, too. Sweden has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across its nation by 40% by 2020; a moving target, as the volume of goods transported continues to rise. With little or no further expansion expected to the rail and road infrastructure in the same period, the key is to increase the efficiency of the vehicles using it.
Curiously, the most promising method is to make the vehicles bigger; by carrying more, the fuel per ton-km is lowered, as these so-called high capacity transports (HCT) are able to transport significantly heavier loads on existing roads. The Swedish forestry research organisation, Skogforsk, is running an HCT project using Volvo lorries up to 90 tons and 30m long. They have a much greater capacity for lumber than existing lorries; able to carry four stacks instead of three, and the results show a 20% reduction in fuel consumption, significant because transport vehicles constitute a large proportion of carbon dioxide emissions from the forestry industry
The efficiency gains are in part enabled by using in-vehicle computers to monitor the lorry’s traction and other key parameters.
Bennesveds Åkeri, a haulage contractor in Älghult Sweden, is using a rugged mobile computer running Windows Embedded, connected to the vehicle’s data bus system (Can and J1587/1708), enabling continuous monitoring of traction across the nine wheel axles with respect to the driving conditions. The driver also receives information and warnings, such as changes in weight distribution or tyre pressure, as well as providing mission information.
In fact, the computer is used for order management, transport and route planning, map data and safety functions, as well as providing data and run-time reports about the ecological aspect of the vehicle’s operation.
“We have used rugged computers for field tests in our heavy timber trucks for some time, in order to develop functions such as improved traction and visualisation of axle loads, which are critical for increased road safety and handling of our vehicles,” said Lena Larson, project manager at Volvo.
This highlights the way a rugged PC can be used to increase efficiency and improve logistics at every level.
Per Holmberg is CEO for JLT Mobile Computers