Smarter controlled ECU products are making race cars smarter than ever, and its all thanks to the IoT
Much has been written about how smart cars are going to change the way we travel in years to come, making everyday journeys easier, but what about vehicles sporting a bit more power?
The introduction of computing and electronic monitoring has revolutionised the motor racing industry over the past decades, making cars faster, smarter and more efficient, ultimately boosting performance. But what is really powering the technology in these cars?
TechWeekEurope headed down to McLaren’s headquarters just outside of Woking (pictured below) to hear how the company works with semiconductor experts Freescale to build and develop some of the smartest cars in the world.
Although they are best known (in the UK at least) for their Formula One team and supercars (most notably the McLaren P1, famous for having been crashed by Mr Bean himself, Rowan Atkinson, resulting in the biggest motoring insurance payout in British history), McLaren actually has influence in numerous racing series across the world.
A key part of the company is its McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) arm, which provides a range of units and products for the likes of NASCAR. Indycar and Formula E, helping teams and drivers be more efficient and powerful.
In fact, MAT is the sole recognised supplier of fuel-injection and engine control systems in NASCAR, a title it has held since 2012.
Surprisingly, this reach also extends to Formula One, where the company’s ECU (engine control units) have been used by every team since 2008, despite McLaren being in competition with them all every racing weekend.
A McLaren ECU (pictured right) uses a Freescale microprocessor to gather information from a range of sensors in the engine one thousand times a second. This determines how much fuel to inject into the engine and when to fire the spark plugs.
The engine is able achieve the most horsepower with the least amount of fuel, improving fuel consumption, reducing emissions and ensuring better driveability. It also decreases the amount of time spent refuelling during a race and provides for a smoother and more consistent running of the engine.
With around 1GB of data coming from each car during every NASCAR or Formula 1 race, the teams need the sort of power and scale Freescale can offer, or as Pete Highton, one of its principal staff engineers says, “Freescale is good at doing the hard work in the background”, noting that the company’s hardware is yet to see a failure in any race series.
Aside from this, the ECU also offers tight security against illegal software or tampering, thanks to “box-locking” methods developed and fine-tuned for over 15 years in Formula 1.
This is necessary to safeguard the sheer amount of data being gathered by the unit, which in NASCAR comes with a specially-designed and secure NASCAR application for enhanced analysis and performance monitoring. It also offers on-board data logging of prescribed primary parameters for NASCAR, and even team data logging when permitted, providing invaluable data for the teams.
“There is intelligence built in at every stage of the process,” says Highton.
Next year, NASCAR cars will feature electronic dashboards for the first time, and McLaren hopes to be able to provide this data in the form of telemetry, legality permitting.
Freescale, too, has big plans for the future. It is heavily involved in the Internet of Things (IoT) space, which Highton says is similar to the likes of Formula One as it needs to constantly and quickly move and analyse data, as well as keeping it secure.
The company is concerned at the current status of security protocols for IoT end nodes, as a young industry means that several different protocols are clashing together in a bid to gain acceptance.
Luckily, though, Highton says, “we saw security coming”, and Freescale is heavily involved in Thread Group standards organisation, making sure that efficient and effective rules are being brought in to safeguard the industry.
The company is also looking to disseminate its knowledge by educating IoT start-ups, who Highton notes often forget the importance of security when looking to quickly grow their company. Freescale provides security training, tools and silicon hardware to help overcome this forgetfulness, and is also opening up the Freescale Security Labs this year, creating facilities all over the world where customers can be trained on using security standards.
So as far as the connected technology goes, the motor industry seems to be in safe hands. Now all it needs is the continued thrill of going racing.
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