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Embedded Systems in Transportation

Written by Michael Lynes

Beam Me Up Scotty…


  • What are the latest products or services offered for embedded systems in transportation?
  • Who are key players in the transportation technology sector?
  • What are the latest tech trends in transportation?

  • Embedded Transportation Technology

  • Advantech
  • Axiomtek
  • Delkin
  • Kontron
  • Mobileye
  • TS2

Ah, Star Trek. Described by many critics as a “spaghetti-western that takes place in space,” the original Star Trek was an archetypical space opera, with the white-hat good guys of the Federation defending helpless settlers against the bad-guy Klingons and Romulans. Over the course of the show the format evolved a lot, with the earlier episodes depicting the Enterprise and her crew in a more militaristic posture, a space-going battleship engaged in a Cold War with powerful alien civilizations—complete with disputed “neutral zones,” outpost skirmishes, and all-out battles, much like the then simmering conflict between western nations and the Soviet Bloc. Later episodes moved away from this, with missions focusing more on alien adventure, scientific exploration, social commentary, trade, colonization, and even alien versions of the hippie counterculture. The show aired for just over three seasons, with 79 episodes filmed before it was canceled and went into syndication.

As a child in the 1960s, I was too young to appreciate the original airing of the series. My first exposure to the show was in its syndicated form, and I grew up watching the reruns. As children and young adults, I and my peers watched the show with uncritical zeal, ignoring plot holes, overt misogyny, ridiculous special effects, ever-changing uniforms, inconsistent technology, and all. My fellow old guy electrical engineers (OGEEs) will recall that, at the time, the world was consumed with the actual race to space. The prodigious spacecraft engineering of NASA, consummating in the never-to-be-recreated experience of watching the moon landing live on TV, was a huge part of our early life experience. As real life reflected in fantasy, Star Trek allowed us to imagine being part of that astounding effort. We were captivated by the romance of the “five-year mission,” and the promise of being able to “boldly go where no one had gone before.”

Looking back, I can say that the main attraction that Star Trek held for me was the interplay between the characters. Being of a scientific mind, I was fascinated by the natural world, and I identified with Mr. Spock, the genius half-human-half-Vulcan science officer ably played by the classically-trained actor Leonard Nimoy. As a budding engineer, I was also captivated by the character of Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott, the chief engineer of the Enterprise, played by James Doohan. “Scotty” was larger-than-life, a technological wizard that oversaw the heart of the ship: its engines. He could also fix or re-engineer just about anything onboard, and would crawl into the heart of the warp drive at the drop of a hat if he felt even the slightest tremor from the ship’s frame.

Scotty’s ability to perceive what was wrong with any technological device was uncanny. With complete candor, I can say that the two most influential engineers in my young life were my father, who was an EE working at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, and Scotty. And I credit both with my desire to acquire the learning and discipline needed to enter this grand profession.

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Another amazing thing about Star Trek was its ability to see into the future, or rather, to codify and predict technological advances. Not surprisingly, the fanbase for the show trended towards a younger, more highly educated demographic. In fact, the first reviews of the new series complained about this, with some critics accusing the show of being “too highbrow” and aimed at viewers who weren’t watching network TV.

For a bit of context, the middle to late 1960s was arguably the heyday of science fiction. The notions of instantaneous transportation, directed energy weapons, wireless communications, superintelligent talking computers, and faster-than-light (FTL) travel were not at all new—all were well-established tropes in sci-fi. Pioneers like E.E. “Doc” Smith, Issac Asimov, and even earlier authors had extensively treated each of these concepts. The novelty of Star Trek was to extract these concepts from a narrow arena and reimagine them for a wider audience that saw them as both new and revolutionary.

One of these predictions was the communicator, a ubiquitous personal communication and location device of which we can see echoes today in our mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, smart watches, and the like. Another Star Trek prediction was the warp drive, or FTL travel. The warp drive allowed the Enterprise to fulfill its mission, transporting the captain and his crew to a marvelous new world each week, and giving the ship the power to fight or flee as the situation warranted. Speaking of transportation, the topic of this month’s Technology Feature is “embedded devices in transportation,” and, not coincidentally, the most fascinating of all the Star Trek predictions was the transporter.

Among all the innovations that were part of the original show, the transporter was my favorite. As Doctor McCoy, played by DeForest Kelly, would often say while shaking his head before stepping onto the transporter platform, “Crazy way to travel…spreading a man’s molecules all over the universe!” [1] For my part, I agree with McCoy’s assessment. Beaming objects from place to place is a crazy way to travel, not only because it’s terrifying, but also from the standpoint of efficiency and economy.

McCoy’s words captured the miraculous nature of the transporter device, and the innate fright of having your entire body, mind, and soul torn apart and reconstructed in some distant place by a machine. Upon analyzing the transporter, any engineer worth her salt would immediately realize that besides the extreme amount of energy required for its operation, it is ridiculously complicated to deconstruct and then subsequently reassemble the umpteen trillion quadrillion molecules and atoms that would be involved in the process. Furthermore, in practical terms, the transporter was often a disadvantage. People beaming down to a planet’s surface were limited in the amount of equipment they could carry, and they were at the mercy of the elements and the natives when they arrived. On the other hand, a landing craft, while less sexy, is a much more practical form of transport. The away party has access to more powerful weapons, as well as shelter from alien attacks or the environment if required, so they’re less dependent on the mother ship for rescue or supplies.

A more practical treatment of this instantaneous transportation trope, if the word has any application here, would be how it was described Harry Harrison’s short story collection One Step from Earth. In the book’s imagined world, the revolutionary transportation concept comes through the discovery of “B-space,” or a dimension that unifies all points in space-time. In one sense, the passage through B-space allows an object to traverse any distance in real space-time in an instant, as the actual distance crossed in the B-dimension is effectively zero.

This concept appealed to my sense of reason more than FTL travel. First, because in some ways it describes the current thought in quantum physics regarding entanglement, or “spooky action at a distance.” It also aligns with some aspects of string theory regarding the six (or seven, depending on the theorist you’re consulting) hidden dimensions of space-time beyond the four that we normally experience.

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The stories in One Step from Earth revolve around the applications of this discovery. The basic idea was that “Doors” into B-space could be constructed. Two of these Doors could then be aligned such that anything that passed through one side would come out the other, no matter how far apart the Doors were in real space. They were effectively instantaneous transportation portals, and over the course of the series of stories, they were made larger and larger, until complete spaceships could pass through a pair of Doors and cross any distance in, effectively, zero time.

Star Trek gave a nod to this concept with its treatment of wormholes [2]. A wormhole is best described as an extreme space-time discontinuity (Figure 1). Objects that pass through a wormhole to the other side appear to travel at many times the effective speed of light. So-called “stable” wormholes were used in some episodes of Star Trek to allow travel between distant sectors of the galaxy. And in not a few episodes, “unstable” wormholes got the ship and crew into a lot of adventure and trouble. The warp drive itself was a sort of cousin of this effect, allowing a ship to travel through space by using energy to warp the space around it. It would then slip forward through the warp, like a needle through bunched-up cloth.

FIGURE 1
2D representation of a space-time wormhole
FIGURE 1
2D representation of a space-time wormhole

STRANGE NEW WORLDS

With all that said, let’s return to our home planet, sector 0-0-1, star coordinates 1.23N 2.79W Alpha Quadrant [3], (colloquial address Earth, Solar System, Orion Arm, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Virgo Cluster, Laniakea Supercluster). On this tiny, blue, Class M planet, we can find a lot of embedded technology related to transportation. In the automobile alone, one of the primary means of human transportation in the 21st century, embedded systems have been deeply integrated. Your modern vehicle is chock-full of embedded devices that assist in getting you from point A to point B, albeit at far below lightspeed (Figure 2). There are also scads of embedded transportation devices used in trucking and delivery fleet operations, freight services, public transportation, trains, and airlines. In the next several sections, I will go through companies that make these devices and evaluate them.

FIGURE 2
Embedded systems in automobiles (Image source: Medium.com [4])
FIGURE 2
Embedded systems in automobiles (Image source: Medium.com [4])

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Delkin: Delkin provides specialty embedded storage devices tailored to serve the transportation systems space. The company has a full lineup of industrial-grade storage solutions designed to meet the demanding needs of this industry. Delkin’s products (Figure 3) address unique requirements, providing high-capacity, high-throughput, flash RAM solutions that can operate in the challenging conditions typical of real-world transportation networks. High-endurance single-level cell (SLC) flash storage technology provides the greatest resistance to shock, extreme heat or cold, high humidity, and vibration. The unique “single-bit-per-cell” design of SLC memories means that they are fast, rugged, and fault-tolerant, meeting the “five 9s” (99.999%) uptime requirement.

FIGURE 3
Delkin Industrial Storage
FIGURE 3
Delkin Industrial Storage

The embedded all-in-one devices that Delkin produces are integrated into complex transportation systems, providing real-time logging, navigation, and failure-free safety [5]. SLC technology also provides the highest possible level of data security available, as well as the fastest data storage speeds. For transportation applications, lost data or slow operation can be extremely disruptive. Using SLC flash memory significantly reduces the risk of these kinds of problems.

Mobileye: Mobileye designs everything from basic collision avoidance systems for commercial trucks and delivery vehicles to fully autonomous driving systems. Partnering with many top-end auto designers, such as Volkswagen Auto Group and Porsche (Figure 4), Mobileye manufactures patented chipsets and vision devices that are paving the way toward the autonomous vehicle of the future, while enhancing driver safety and alertness along the way.

FIGURE 4
Porsche with Mobileye technology
FIGURE 4
Porsche with Mobileye technology

Mobileye has been at the forefront of this technology for decades, and its vehicle monitoring systems have been shown in real-world testing to reduce collisions by up to 45%. The company’s next generation of embedded transportation systems incorporates multiple forms of human-machine integration. A good overview of Mobileye’s technology in action can be seen in a video clip linked on Circuit Cellar’s Article Materials and Resources webpage [6].

ROLLING ALONG

Besides the automobile, the transportation sector also encompasses various forms of commercial carriage enterprises. This includes fleet operations like delivery services and long-haul trucking, as well as public transportation and freight via rail and bus lines. Embedded systems are used extensively in these industries to monitor performance, enhance safety, provide real-time data for complex routing algorithms, and realize gains in efficiency and productivity.

Advantech: Advantech has a long history in this sector [7]. In partnership with Aicox, a Portuguese provider of advanced AI-based systems [8], Advantech has developed a full line of embedded platforms to serve the commercial transportation marketplace. As shown in Figure 5 and Figure 6, Advantech systems meet stringent railway and bus safety and reliability standards, and have been designed to operate on a wide range of power and communication modalities. Advantech embedded systems provide safety monitoring, environmental controls, alarms and alerts, real-time schedule updates for travelers, and entertainment that can be served directly to a customer’s mobile devices. Like Mobileye, Advantech also has devices tailored to busses and trucking fleets. In Figure 7 and Figure 8, you can see their embedded products to monitor driver behavior, and to provide real-time fleet data and metrics, vehicle alerts, remote diagnostics, video and GPS location surveillance for cargo security, embedded entertainment systems to enhance rider comfort, and passenger information related to delays or schedule changes.

FIGURE 5
Advantech for Rolling Stock
FIGURE 5
Advantech for Rolling Stock

FIGURE 6
Advantech for Busses
FIGURE 6
Advantech for Busses

FIGURE 7
Advantech Systems for Transport Fleets
FIGURE 7
Advantech Systems for Transport Fleets

FIGURE 8
Advantech Systems for Transport Fleets
FIGURE 8
Advantech Systems for Transport Fleets

TS2: A good take on the overall changes to the transportation sector that have been brought about by the incorporation of embedded systems can be found on TS2’s blog [9]. There you can read about the future of smart transportation, and how the advent of IoT-enabled intelligent devices has revolutionized the sector. From the article referenced, this quote is perhaps the most seminal: “By integrating [IoT] systems into various aspects of transportation infrastructure, it is possible to optimize the movement of people and goods, reduce environmental impact, and improve overall efficiency.”

The cost savings alone allow these systems to pay for themselves in short order, and then continue to produce bottom-line improvements in profitability going forward. Further, as embedded systems are utilized to streamline the movement of people and goods, they reduce overall energy costs and the emissions caused thereby. Lastly, by enabling more efficient routing and reducing congestion, intelligent transportation systems can reduce the environmental impact of transportation—a win-win all around.

Axiomtek: Axiomtek is another producer of IoT-enabled endpoints for industrial applications. It has a full line of products targeted at the transportation sector [10], with systems for traffic control, data gathering, and enforcement/surveillance. The company has over thirty years of experience in the design and manufacture of industrial computing platforms, with its current focus being rugged IoT systems that bring high functionality and intelligence to the edges of the network.

Axiomtek can act as a consultant on your project as well. It has a full design team that can assist in customizing its solutions to meet specific tender requirements. Axiomtek’s team can help spec out and implement the system, integrating it into an existing platform or setting up a full green-field design.

See Circuit Cellar’s Article Materials and Resources webpage for an informative video that gives an overview of the breadth of the company’s transportation-focused industrial solutions [11]. Axiomtek lists its qualifications on its website, noting that its “purpose-built transportation embedded computer products are suitable for projects by mass transit authorities, system integrators, bus and rail manufacturers and transportation infrastructure builders.” Axiomtek’s solutions are also certified to meet the E-Mark standard, are able to be used in the European Union, and conform with the ECE standards for homologation, efficacy, and efficiency. As noted on its site, Axiomtek has also met EN 50155, EN 50121 and EN 45545 for railway applications, and DNV 2.4 and IEC 60945 for marine applications.

BEAM ME ON

With all this talk about embedded systems in transportation, I must say a few words about electric vehicles (EV). EVs are the future—full stop. Currently, they are in their infancy, and there is a lot of market hype surrounding them. But one thing is clear: the days of the internal combustion engine (ICE) are waning. The transition will be gradual, and several inflection points must be overcome in the process. One of the most critical issues is driving range, and the key component to solve this issue is battery energy density.

While the current crop of EV batteries is certainly good, their energy density (watt-hours per liter) is far less than chemical fuel. While it is true that the energy efficiency of ICE engines is far less (20% is a good rule of thumb), the energy density of their fuel is about 100 times greater than the best batteries available today (Figure 9). This all adds up to a more frequent need to recharge the energy in your EV, and a reduced cruising range as a consequence.

FIGURE 9
Batteries vs. chemical fuels
FIGURE 9
Batteries vs. chemical fuels

One solution to this energy density issue is to improve the technology of batteries themselves. The IEEE article “Waiting for Super Batteries” [12] addresses this concern, in essence tying the widespread adoption of EVs to a yet-to-be-realized invention, a super-battery with an energy density that rivals that of conventionally fueled ICE engines. Another more practical approach is to somehow maintain the energy of the vehicle during operation. Gas-electric hybrids are one form of this type of “constant recharge,” or “mobile generation,” idea. Another is using intelligent embedded systems, in combination with a wireless broadcast power infrastructure, to maintain the vehicle’s charge while it remains mobile. The EURASIP Journal on Embedded Systems has an article discussing the application of this technology [13], and there have been several pilot projects implemented. The challenge of this approach has less to do with the technology, and much more to do with the cost of scaling the infrastructure. As of this writing, no wide-scale wireless EV charging systems have been implemented.

Kontron: Last, but certainly not least, is Kontron. Based in Wien, Austria, the Kontron group is a 6000-person-strong multinational corporation specializing in the application of IoT technology to a wide range of industries. Kontron Transportation’s stated mission is to employ embedded computing systems in transportation that are focused on extending the capabilities of the industry through IoT [14]. Toward that end, they produce a broad range of rugged IoT platforms for applications in smart railways. Their devices provide passenger information and entertainment, as well as smart networks that run over the existing rail infrastructure and provide high-speed wireless and wired connectivity to the entire rail network. They also make embedded devices for train control, both for autonomous safety and accident prevention, and for operator-assisted control. Their High-Performance Embedded Computer (HPEC) line of in-vehicle computing platforms is deployed in over 100,000 on-road and off-road heavy-industry vehicles, and their passenger ticketing and validation solutions are deployed across Europe, providing these types of embedded customer services at scale.

BOLDLY GETTING THE HECK OUTTA HERE

Well, that was a lot of information, more than enough for a long winter’s night. ‘Tis the season, as they say, and I’m sure your EV has been stuffed with many a gift to be wrapped and placed ‘neath your holiday tree. A perennial story that crops up around this time of year is an analysis of the amazing speed and carrying capacity of Santa’s obviously future-tech sleigh. One of the best I’ve read is an article from astrophysicist Linda Harden, The Human Neutrino, published in the December 1990 edition of Spy Magazine, entitled “Is there a Santa Claus?” [15] While amusing, we all know that Santa and his elves are using a combination of wormhole and warp tech, delivering their joyous missives throughout the world in no time at all.

And with all that said, I would be remiss if I did not wish you all a happy and peaceful holiday season. To quote the famous poem (which I incorporated in my own sci-fi story [16], “Merry Xmas to all, and to all a good night.” See you all next year! 

REFERENCES
[1] McCoy quotes, Daystrom Institute Technical Library: https://www.ditl.org/personnel-quotes.php?PersonID=3
[2] Wikipedia article on wormholes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wormhole
[3] Earth Coordinates in Star Trek: https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Coordinates
[4] “Embedded Systems in Automobile,” Medium.com: https://medium.com/@mohammednumeir13/embedded-systems-in-automobile-9f714561aa19#:~:text=Today%2C%20a%20typical%20automobile%20on,%2C%20traction%20control%2C%20automatic%20parking%2C
[5] Delkin Blog: https://www.delkin.com/blog/transportation-applications-embedded-systems/
[6] Mobileye Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdE1LIJnxYI
[7] Advantech: https://www.advantech.com/en/solutions/intelligent-transportation-systems
[8] Aicox: https://www.aicox.com/en/industrial-solutions/
[9] TS2: https://ts2.space/en/the-impact-of-embedded-systems-on-transportation-and-logistics/
[10] Axiomtek: https://www.axiomtek.com/Default.aspx?MenuId=Solutions&ItemId=5&Title=Transportation
[11] Axiomtek video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGZp-S7-jig
[12] IEEE – Waiting for Super Batteries: https://spectrum.ieee.org/ev-battery-2658649740
[13] Embedded systems Power Transfer to Vehicles: https://jes-eurasipjournals.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s13639-016-0032-z
[14] Kontron: https://www.kontron.com/en/industries/transportation
[15] “Is there a Santa Claus”, Harden, Linda, SPY Magazine Dec. 1990 – reprint: https://archivo.eluniversal.com.mx/in-english/2014/santa-claus-journey-according-to-the-laws-of-physics-99276.html
[16] Merry Ex-Mass: https://www.amazon.com/Merry-EX-mas-Michael-Lynes-ebook/dp/B077TY1T7H?ref_=ast_author_dp

SOURCES
Delkin Systems: Embedded Storage for Transportation https://www.delkin.com/products/

RESOURCES
Delkin | www.delkin.com
Mobileye | www.mobileye.com
TS2 | ts2.space

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • DECEMBER 2023 #401 – Get a PDF of the issue

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Michael Lynes is an entrepreneur who has founded several startup ventures. He was awarded a BSEE degree in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and currently works as an embedded software engineer. When not occupied with arcane engineering projects, he spends his time playing with his three grandchildren, baking bread, working on ancient cars, backyard birdwatching, and taking amateur photographs. He’s also a prolific author with over thirty works in print. His latest series is the Cozy Crystal Mysteries. Book one, Moonstones and Murder, is already in print, and book two is on its way. His latest works include several collections of ghost stories, short works of general fiction, a collection called Angel Stories, and another collection called November Tales, inspired by the fiction of Ray Bradbury. He currently lives with his wife Margaret in the beautiful, secluded hills of Sussex County, New Jersey. You can contact him via email at mikelynes@gmail.com.

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Embedded Systems in Transportation

by Michael Lynes time to read: 14 min