It should come as no surprise that today's new car has more technology found within than even the fastest desktop computer. Unfortunately, it seems that most of this technological firepower hasn't been used for the driver's benefit. But new advancements that integrate vehicle systems with GPS-linked maps could deliver advantages to drivers unlike any other.
BMW has iDrive, Audi has MMI and Mercedes has COMAND, all of which help the driver control various vehicle functions through one main interface. The array of driver control systems gained another member earlier this year when Ford introduced MyFord Touch. Operating along with the Blue Oval's popular SYNC technology, MyFord Touch was meant to provide easy adjustments of the most commonly used features like air conditioning and audio, as well as allow the driver to organize the information he receives on the dashboard and center console screens.
We've found that the information Ford drivers should start paying attention to most of all -- at least, the ones who want to save gas and money -- is this: Eco-Route. When you input a destination into your navigation-equipped Ford, "Eco-Route" is the green option that has joined "Fastest" and "Shortest" as a third way to get wherever you're going. The simplest explanation is that "it charts a course that avoids congested freeways while maximizing the use of major roads where the driver can maintain an efficient rate of speed." Efficient speeds mean the engine uses less gas, and that means you use less money.
Of course the details are a little more complex.
"The fastest route is based on minimum time," Chuck Broadwater, Ford's Supervisor for the Navigation Group, "the shortest on minimum distance, and the Eco–Route is somewhere in the middle."
Eco–Route launches initially on the 2011 Ford Edge, which debuts this summer. It balances your need for speed and the engine's need for fuel with an algorithm called the Vehicle Speed vs. Fuel Consumption Curve, with the navigation route tailored to keep you rolling in the Edge's sweet spot.
To do that, it uses a range of data to figure out what roads are actually the best roads to use right now.
"We have normal speed limits on roads," says Broadwater, "we also have the historical speed on the road and we have real–time traffic from Sirius which provides the current conditions. The hierarchy is (that) real time is most valuable, then historical, and those are used as inputs along with the vehicle speed curve vs. fuel economy, and we come up with what we consider the optimum route for that particular vehicle."
The normal speed is the posted limit, whereas the historical speed is how fast people actually drive a given stretch of road at a given time of day.
"We know what the speeds are and what happens during different times of the day on a particular road," says Broadwater, "We know on this road at this time of day the speed is 45 miles per hour, which is close to the sweet spot, so we would tend to use that road, whereas during rush hour the speed is down to 25 so we would tend to avoid that road because of the cost."
Speaking of costs, what are they?
"There's a ten percent cost penalty," said Alan Hall, Ford's head of technology communications, "for 15 percent better fuel economy per route" when using Eco-Route.
An hour–long route will now take you about and hour and six minutes, but you'll use fifteen percent less gas, emit fifteen percent fewer emissions, and use fifteen percent less of your weekly gas budget.
The tech will be rolled out on other vehicles as MyFord, MyLincoln, and MyMercury Touch systems migrate throughout the line-ups and vehicle speed vs. fuel economy curves are established for each of the company's offerings.
The advancements finally bring car technology into the realm of being not only functional but truly beneficial. It's interesting to think of the navigation system helping drivers save money and save the planet, yet there is so much more being planned for the integration of map-based driving systems. Ultimately, because the map data can "tell" your car what to expect from the terrain ahead, increasing the communication between the map and the car's behavior is aimed at enabling safer, much more efficient driving. The industry term for this kind of technology is Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, and it isn't new.
"We've had digital maps helping safety in BMWs since 2005," said Bob Denaro, Vice President for ADAS at NAVTEQ, one of the two major providers of GPS and map data for third–party clients.
Take adaptive headlight systems, for example. Currently, the headlights swivel right or left in response to you turning the wheel. If the headlights were also in communication with your GPS map, they would know about a curve coming up -- or more crucially, a blind curve -- and could swivel appropriately to give you more warning and more information than you could have got visually.
"What ADAS initially really dealt with (was) safety," said Denaro. "What's happened in last couple of years is that emphasis on CO2 emissions and fuel economy has overtaken the safety discussion."
Tele Atlas is the other major provider of GPS maps and mapping software, and it also makes TomTom portable navigation devices.
"When you consider that automakers spend hundreds of millions of dollars in engine technology to make engines more efficient," said John Husby, Tele Atlas' Vice President of Automotive, Transportation and Telematics, "there's a way here to leverage information in powertrain controllers to make engines run more efficiently. For example, if a car is approaching a hill, there's a point at which you want the car to start accelerating to use less energy, based on maximum output while using minimum gas or electricity."
Slope data -- the gradient and height of a hill -- is one of the most important areas of investigation for everyone involved in the eco driving discussion. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius must be overly conservative with their battery power because they don't want to risk running completely out of juice -- to do so would harshly affect the hybrid driving experience.
However, if you were driving up a hill and the car "knew," via map data, that it would be going doing the hill, it could take advantage of engine and regenerative braking to replenish the batteries. The hybrid could use more battery power going up the hill, and hence run much more efficiently, since it could project what its energy needs will be down the road. This will be even more important for all-electric vehicles.
"A study by auto supply company out of Great Britain," said Navteq's Denaro, "did some simulation on the road and showed results of between five and 25 percent improvement in hybrid fuel economy. Mathematically, to the system, it's the equivalent of shaving off the tops of all the hills."What's Ahead
Slope data isn't the only kind of information that can be used to help the hybrid cause. In fact, the next developments in leaner driving won't be dependent on inputting a destination and having a planned route. Ford and Navteq are working on a project called Electronic Horizon, in which the navigation system looks up the road a little more than a mile and figures out what the most efficient driving habits would be based on all possible routes.
For example, if you're on a flat city street that curves to the right and comes to an intersection controlled by a stop sign, the car would be aware of this situation even if you weren't and could instruct you to gradually slow down in advance of the stop. Or the vehicle might know that while the posted speed is 35 mph around the turn, the actual speed of daily traffic is 25 mph, and by instructing you to slow down could be providing both safety and fuel benefits.
Technologies like predictive cruise control in the trucking industry are already benefiting from developments like Electronic Horizon.
"Freightliner has installed the first production use of digital maps to help fuel economy," said Navteq's Denaro. "Instead of setting the speed at 55, there's a range of plus or minus six percent of the speed you set. The map looking ahead will set the speed profile, so before getting to a hill the truck will go to highest set speed, going uphill it will drop to the minimum speed. With it, they've found a three-to-five percent increase in fuel economy. We just did a study with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that showed that if we can increase that band to 10% you can get 10–12% increase in fuel economy on a passenger car."
The two things needed to make the most of this research are more detailed road data and automakers continuing their investment in more integrated systems.
When it comes to data both Tele Atlas and Navteq are working overtime -- and you're working for them.
Navteq gets its anonymous data from reports provided by Nokia cell phones that, in the case of slope data, is backed up by inertial measurement units used in its fleet of mapping vehicles.
"We have tens of millions of TomTom devices on the road," said Husby, "and they serve as an excellent way to anonymously provide info to help benefit the routing experience. Because of that, through partners and devices we have over 1.8 trillion points of information. For example, within speed profiles we know on all of the roads the average speeds driven under what time of day, day of week, and season to get a really good historical knowledge. The innovation is really going to, no pun intended, drive the industry."
Still, for all they do, the ultimate work remains yours. Driver behavior has a lot to do with fuel economy," said Ford's Broadwater. "Eco-Route is only part of the solution, but driver behavior is part of this as well. If a driver follows the other cues regarding hard braking versus soft, or hard acceleration versus soft acceleration, along with the Eco-Route, then you end up with a good solution."