AutoPlug: Plug-n-Play Comes to Automotive Technology

As final preparations for the Senior Design Competitions commence, students wander the halls at all hours of the night. Cheers of victory and groans of defeat emanate from every lab, robots roam the hallways, and coffee sales skyrocket to compensate for sleepless nights. Presentation day reveals nervous, exhausted students dressed in business finery, hoping to win the hearts of the judges. For most students it is a satisfying conclusion to their undergraduate career. But for a lucky few, the Senior Design Competition is an opportunity to apply research, academic training and problem-solving skills to solve real-world problems with timely and effective solutions.

Open-source Automobiles

Such is the case for the students working on AutoPlug, the 2009 brainchild of Rahul Mangharam, Stephen J. Angello Term Assistant Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE) and director of the mLAB, a real-time and embedded systems laboratory. At that time, Mangharam was considering the future of a programmable car. Ever since, Penn Engineering students have been working to make AutoPlug one of the world's most useful embedded systems devices.

That summer a team of undergraduates, including Kevin Conley (ESE'12), Teddy Zhang (ESE'12) and Gabe Torres (ESE'11), worked with Madhur Behl, a doctoral student in ESE, and Mangharam to develop the first capabilities for AutoPlug. According to the official website, AutoPlug is an open system and network architecture for Plug-n-Play services for third-party hardware devices and software modules. It allows vehicles to become extensible, customizable, and more integrated with evolving technology over the lifetime of the vehicle. The device enables car owners to enhance current capabilities, for example, engine performance and infotainment; add on functionality by using new safety sensors and on-road diagnostics; and customize a vehicle via an "Auto AppStore." Thanks to the team's hard work, AutoPlug won first prize at the 2010 World Embedded Software Competition held in Seoul, Korea.

The next phase of development became the focus for a Senior Design team supervised by Mangharam, as students sought to resolve one of the most vexing problems in the auto industry, Electronic Control Unit (ECU) failure. At last spring's Computer and Information Science Senior Design Project Competition, Ross Boczar (ESE'12), Jason Suapengco (C1S'11), and Gabe Torres won first prize for their contributions to the AutoPlug system.

Remote-controlled Systems

The team explained that a modern luxury car uses as many as 70 different ECU processes, utilizing software which can exceed one million lines of computer code to manage the various operating systems within a car, such as anti-lock brakes, cruise control and other ECU systems. AutoPlug allows remote access to these vehicle systems, giving the manufacturer the opportunity to diagnose and repair system problems without the need to physically replace ECUs. Upgrades or replacements of the computer code which runs any system can be made remotely, greatly reducing the need for recalls. AutoPlug utilizes a Wi-Fi device such as a smart phone to install upgrades and repairs to your car much
the way we update our computers. As Ross Boczar explained, "AutoPlug provides car manufacturers an easier way to diagnose and remotely upgrade vehicles on the road."

Data-driven Future

Future research directions include using the data acquired through AutoPlug as the car is driven in realworld conditions to improve the design of subsequent vehicles. According to Gabe Torres, AutoPlug is "not just a concept, not just a theoretical application, but actually something that could be used in a year's time."

AutoPlug won the judges' decision that day. It was a project that perfectly embodies Penn Engineering's educational mission to emphasize both theory and practice while forming intellectual linkages across a breadth of disciplines—the gold standard of a Penn Engineering education.

View the article in Penn Engineering magazine "AutoPlug: Plug-n-Play Comes to Automotive Technology" by Amy Calhoun.

Interested? Learn more!

AutoPlug website
mLab website
Computer and Information Science website
Electrical and Systems Engineering website

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