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IBM deal could mean smarter cars, better drivers

Partnership plans to develop better-integrated computer systems that pay attention, even when a driver isn't.

IBM will help design software that could lead to self-adjusting headlights on cars and sensors that help avert crashes, as part of a deal signed Wednesday.

Big Blue will design and develop software and handle intellectual property management in a five-year deal with Magna Electronics, an auto electronics division of Canada-based Magna International, that has already begun developing "smart" car parts. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"Magna Electronics' partnership (with IBM) will be growing and enhancing the capability that we already have. It puts us on a different playing field," said Tracy Fuerst, a spokeswoman for Magna International.

Neither company would comment on specific products. But, Bernie Meyerson, the chief technology officer for IBM Systems Technology, did say that the collaboration could produce things like embedded sensors and cameras that would slow down a car approaching a stop sign if a driver does not react in time. Another system placed inside a car could tell when a driver is drifting off to sleep and sound an alarm, or emit an evergreen scent, to wake him. "Intelligent headlights" could adjust depending on lighting and weather conditions, said Meyerson.

According to one analyst, this deal will create multiple business opportunities for IBM. Whether it's hardware, software, storage, operations or management services, IBM will be able to become a supplier for these kinds of channels to the automotive industry, said Jonathan Eunice, president and principal analyst for Illuminata.

Meyerson said that the collaboration will incorporate the Unstructured Information Management Architecture (UIMA) technology that IBM unveiled in 2003. In this case, the UIMA technology would retrieve real-time data, including a car's speed, the speed of the car in front of it, traffic patterns and the average speed of multiple cars on a particular road. That data could then be used to regulate the car's driving patterns.

Having a car organize all that information and then respond to it accordingly is extremely complex, said Meyerson. It requires several software and hardware components in the car to work together seamlessly.

"To put it in the simplest terms, you need a computer that takes care of itself," said Meyerson. "It becomes like the human body. You don't act to make your heart beat. You don't act to make your immune system fight off bacteria. That level of autonomic function has not gotten there yet" for cars, said Meyerson.

Eunice said that politicians and technology companies like to put forth grand visions of car autonomy, safety and convenience to gain support for technology that is complicated and tedious to explain otherwise. Most likely, said Eunice, you will see such advancements in government and commercial vehicles first.

"We expect these to eventually be pervasive like seatbelts and antilock breaks. But it takes decades to happen," Eunice said. "It does require quite a long time to develop and the progress happens somewhat fitfully."