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IBM works to help cars diagnose themselves

System alerts driver to a potential malfunction, thereby providing a chance to nip the problem in the bud.

IBM has begun to promote a technology suite that could one day let cars solve their own problems.

The Parametric Analysis Center essentially creates an environment where data from a car's electric systems feeds into a central processing unit, called a Telematics Control Unit. The TCU then alerts a driver or a dealer when a potential malfunction--high heat emanating from particular components, a leak in a gasket--has begun, thereby giving them a chance to nip the problem in the bud.

"We can make a large impact in the warranty process," said Nathaniel Mills, a senior technical staff member at IBM Research. "The Telematics Control Unit is an objective observer."

With the TCU information, dealers could order a part in advance of a repair appointment, for instance, or inform a driver that the gas leak is actually being caused by a loose gas cap rather than by a more dangerous crack in the fuel tank.

The diagnostic data is also collected and analyzed to give auto manufacturers a better understanding of equipment failures, wear and tear and other problems, Mills said.

Data about wear and tear and operations can also be pulled out of a car without a TCU by having a dealer plug into the data port, a common feature of new cars. These cars won't alert the dealer automatically, but the data, on periodic checks, can provide information about potential malfunctions.

The car, like pretty much everything else, is becoming an electronic device. Radar and camera systems that provide drivers with information about cars in their blind spot will likely roll out in the next few years..

In subsequent years, electronics are expected to increasingly take over many driving functions (such as determining when it's safe to switch lanes) and even control traffic flow.

IBM recently completed a pilot test of the technology with the U.S. Army's National Automotive Center and an unnamed automaker and now plans to promote it to other car manufacturers, Mills said.