AutoPlug Demo Credit: Alexandra Fleischman

Texting while driving is generally unsafe. But a new invention could prevent accidents by having your car text you.

A group at the School of Engineering and Applied Science has invented AutoPlug, a way to connect cars’ electrical hardware to the internet.

This would allow car users, manufacturers and cars themselves to keep track of any potential electrical problems before they become dangerous.

AutoPlug competed for future funding from Building America’s Future, an educational fund headed by elected officials, on Feb. 4 in College Hall. The team presented AutoPlug to BAF co-chairman and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell.

An average car sold today is already composed of software, Electrical and Systems Engineering professor Rahul Mangharam explained. Almost a fifth of a car’s price pays for the electrical systems which can translate physical motions — the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brake — into responses from the car.

It was Mangharam’s idea back in 2009 to create AutoPlug, which Mangharam said is the “future of a programmable car.”

Engineering junior Kevin Conley, who has been working on the project almost since its inception, brought the first generation of AutoPlug to completion — and recognition. Last year, the work of the AutoPlug team was recognized both at Penn and at the 2010 World Embedded Software Competition in Korea.

According to Conley, his work on the project has created a “platform [that] communicates with the car itself to get data about all the electronics in the car.” These electronics include everything from air conditioning to power steering. And with AutoPlug installed, this information is available to any Wi-Fi device.

Although this first generation of AutoPlug is complete, a senior design team is continuing exploration into its applications. They are working to adapt AutoPlug so that it can warn users about possible problems such as low oil or deflating tires.

It can also allow manufacturers to avoid recalls by remotely diagnosing and upgrading car software, said Gabe Torres, a member of the senior design team and Engineering senior.

Within the car, around 70 processes are controlled by software, Mangharam said. Last year, about 20 million recalls were made, the majority of which were due to electrical problems.

In many instances the physical movements made by the driver are not directly converted into electrical messages. When these systems malfunction, drivers may lose control or skid on the road, and recalls become necessary.

However, AutoPlug could change the car industry by detecting and removing bugs in the car’s system, making recalls avoidable.

And the upgradable, safer, smarter car might be a product consumers can expect in the near future.

AutoPlug is “not just a concept, not just a theoretical application, but actually something that could be used in a year’s time,” Torres said.

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