|The cybernetic DWIM car is coming. DWIM stands for ``Do What I Mean.'' It is a commonplace term in the field of
Human-machine Interfaces, and refers to systems that automatically interpret the user's
intent from his or her inputs.
Cybernetics (or at least one aspect of it) is the
science of unifying humans and machines. The objective of cybernetics is usually to
amplify human capability with `intelligent' machines, but sometimes the objective is the
reverse. Most of the work in cybernetics has been under the aegis of defense, for building
advanced tanks and aircraft. There is a modest amount of cybernetics in the automotive
industry, as well. Anti-lock Braking (ABS), Acceleration Slip Reduction (ASR), Electronic
Engine Management, and Automatic Traction Control (ATC) are cybernetic DWIM systems---of a
kind---already in production. They all make `corrections' on the driver's input based on
an assumed intention. Steer-by-wire, Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVT), and active
suspensions are on the immediate horizon. All these features are part of a distinct trend
to automate the driving experience. This month, we take a break from hard physics to look
at the better and the worse of increased automation, and we look at one concept of the
ultimate result, CyberCar.
Among the research directions in cybernetics are advanced sensors for human inputs. One
of the more incredible is a system that reads brain waves and figures out what a fighter
pilot wants to do directly from patterns in the waves.
A major challenge in the fighter cockpit is information overload. Pilots have far too
many instruments, displays, horns, buzzers, radio channels, and idiot lights competing for
their attention. In stressful situations, such as high speed dogfights, the pilot's brain
simply ignores inputs beyond its capacity, so the pilot may not hear a critical buzzer or
see a critical warning light. In the `intelligent cockpit,' however, the pilot consciously
suppresses certain displays and auditory channels, thus reducing sensory clutter. By the
same token, the intelligent cockpit must be able to override the pilot's choices and to
put up critical displays and to sound alarms in emergencies. In the reduced clutter of the
cockpit, then, it is much less likely that a pilot will miss critical information.
How does the pilot select the displays that he wants to see? The pilot
cannot afford the time to scroll through menus like those on a personal computer screen or
hunt-and-peck on a button panel like that on an automatic bank teller machine.
There are already sensors that can read a pilot's brain waves and anticipate what he
wants to look at next. Before the pilot even consciously knows that he wants to look at a
weapon status display, for example, the cybernetic system can infer the intention from his
brain waves and pop up the display. If he thinks it is time to look at the radar, before
he could speak the command, the system reads his brain waves, pops up the radar display,
and puts away the weapon status display.
How does it work? During a training phase, the system reads brain waves and gets
explicit commands through a button panel. The system analyzes the brain waves, looking for
certain unique features that it can associate with the intention (inferred from the
command from the button panel) to see the radar display, and other unique features to
associate with the intention to look at weapon status, and so on. The system must be
trained individually for each pilot. Later, during operation, whenever the system sees the
unique brain wave patterns, it `knows' what the pilot wants to do.
The implications of technology like this for automobiles is amazing. Already, things
like ABS are a kind of rudimentary cybernetics. When a driver stands all over the brake
pedal, it is assumed that his intention is to stop, not to skid. The ABS system `knows,'
in a manner of speaking, the driver's intention and manages the physical system of the car
to accomplish that goal. So, instead of being a mere mechanical linkage between your foot
and the brakes, the brake pedal becomes a kind of intentional, DWIM control. Same goes for
traction control and ASR. When the driver is on the gas, the system `knows' that he wants
to go forward, not to spin out or do doughnuts. In the case of TC, the system regulates
the torque split to the drive wheels, whether there be two or four. In the case of ASR,
the system backs off the throttle when there is wheel spin. Cybernetics again.
ABS, TC, and ASR exist now. What about the future? Consider steer-by-wire. CyberCar,
the total cybernetic car, infers the driver's intended direction from the steering wheel
position. It makes corrections to the actual direction of the steered wheels and to the
throttle and brakes much more quickly and smoothly than any driver can do. Coupled with
slip angle sensors 
and inertial guidance systems, perhaps based on miniaturized laser/fiber optic gyros (no
moving parts), cybernetic steering, throttle, and brake controls will make up a formidable
racing car that could drive a course in practically optimal fashion given only the
driver's desired racing line.
In an understeering situation, when a car is not turning as much as desired, a common
driver mistake is to turn the steering wheel more. That is a mistake, however, only
because the driver is treating the steering wheel as an intentional control
rather than the physical control it actually is. In CyberCar, however, the steering wheel is
an intentional control. When the driver adds more lock in a corner, CyberCar `knows' that
the driver just wants more steering. Near the limits of adhesion, CyberCar knows that the
appropriate physical reaction is, in fact, some weight transfer to the front,
either by trailing throttle or a little braking, and a little less steering wheel lock.
When the fronts hook up again, CyberCar can immediately get back into the throttle and add
a little more steering lock, all the while tracking the driver's desires through the
intentional steering wheel in the cockpit. Similarly, in an oversteer situation, when the
driver gives opposite steering lock, CyberCar knows what to do. First, CyberCar determines
whether the condition is trailing throttle oversteer (TTO) or power oversteer (PO). It can
do this by monitoring tire loads through suspension deflection and engine torque output
over time. In TTO, CyberCar adds a little throttle and countersteers. When the drive
wheels hook up again, it modulates the throttle and dials in a little forward lock. In PO,
CyberCar gently trails off the throttle and countersteers. All the while, CyberCar
monitors driver's intentional inputs and the physical status of the car at the rate of
several kilohertz (thousands of times per second).
The very terms `understeer' and `oversteer' carry cybernetic implication, for these are
terms of intent. Understeer means the car is not steering as much as wanted, and oversteer
means it is steering too much.
The above description is within current technology. What if we get really
fantastic? How about doing away with the steering wheel altogether? CyberCar, version II,
knows where the driver wants to go by watching his eyes, and it knows whether to
accelerate or brake by watching brain waves. With Virtual Reality and teleoperation, the
driver does not even have to be inside the car. The driver, wearing binocular video
displays that control in-car cameras (or even synthetic computer graphics) via
head position, sits in a virtual cockpit in the pits.
Now we must ask how much cybernetics is desirable? Autocrossing is, largely, a pure
driver skill contest. Wheel-to-wheel racing adds racecraft---drafting, passing, deception,
etc. ---to car control skills. Does it not seem that cybernetics eliminates
driver skill as a factor by automating it? Is it not just another way for the `haves' to
beat the `have-nots' by out-spending them? Drivers who do not have ABS have already
complained that it gives their competition an unfair advantage. On the other hand, drivers
who do have it have complained that it reduces their feel of control and their
options while braking. I think they doth protest too much.
In the highest forms of racing, where money is literally no object, cybernetics is
already playing a critical role. The clutch-less seven speed transmissions of the
Williams/Renault team dominated the latter half of the 1991 Formula 1 season. But for some
unattributable bad luck, they would have won the driver's championship and the
constructor's cup. Carrol Smith, noted racing engineer, has been predicting for years that
ABS will show up in Formula 1 as soon as systems can be made small and light enough . It seems
inevitable to me that cybernetic systems will give the unfair advantage to those teams
most awash in money. However, autocrossers, club racers, and other grass roots competitors
will be spared the expense, and the experience of being relieved of the enjoyment of car
control, for at least another decade or two.