Embedded Computing Transforms Transportation



Rugged high-performance embedded computers are accelerating the path to driverless cars and other autonomous vehicles.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to transform transportation as we know it, and likely in just the next few years. Industry-leading automotive manufacturers are tapping the latest innovations from hardware and software technology providers to bring to market not only connected cars, but also autonomous vehicles (AVs).

Chandler, Arizona is the home of Intel’s Advanced Vehicle Lab. Equipped with sensors, Lincoln MKZs are working to create deep learning models for the autonomous cars to come. (Courtesy Tim Herman/Intel Corporation)

Chandler, Arizona is the home of Intel’s Advanced Vehicle Lab. Equipped with sensors, Lincoln MKZs are working to create deep learning models for the autonomous cars to come. (Courtesy Tim Herman/Intel Corporation)

Chandler, Arizona is the home of Intel’s Advanced Vehicle Lab. Equipped with sensors, Lincoln MKZs are working to create deep learning models for the autonomous cars to come. (Courtesy Tim Herman/Intel Corporation)

The driverless car, the ultimate autonomous vehicle, is arguably the hottest and most anticipated IoT-connected device to date. Self-driving cars bring the promise of greater energy conservation, lower emissions, added convenience, and roads that are both safer and less congested. It is little wonder, then, why leading companies in both the automotive and technology sectors are steadfastly focused on accelerating the availability and adoption of autonomous driving solutions. The industry is betting you won’t want to own a car someday, but you’ll want the service.

Anatomy of an Autonomous Vehicle

An autonomous vehicle is a complex piece of machinery encompassing a wealth of disparate electronic, electro-optic, and compute components and systems. These advanced elements are distributed throughout the vehicle, and yet work in tandem and are interconnected.

“The amount of technology required to bring fully driverless vehicles is staggering,” Intel® CEO Brian Krzanich emphasized at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) 2016 in San Francisco last August. “Vehicles require sensors to pick up LIDAR, sonar, radar, and optical signals; hubs to gather millions of data points; in-car microprocessors and high-speed connectivity to capture, process, and transport data.”

Figure 1: Rugged, compact form factor servers to meet autonomous vehicle demands for data collection, such as that needed to generate deep learning models, high-performance processing, and secure data storage, are now coming online. Shown here is the RS363S15F Rugged 3U Server from Crystal Group, which the company  engineered  in collaboration with Intel for autonomous vehicle applications.

Figure 1: Rugged, compact form factor servers to meet autonomous vehicle demands for data collection, such as that needed to generate deep learning models, high-performance processing, and secure data storage, are now coming online. Shown here is the RS363S15F Rugged 3U Server from Crystal Group, which the company engineered in collaboration with Intel for autonomous vehicle applications.

Situational awareness via the processing of enormous amounts of data is central to the entire autonomous vehicle. Intel-powered autonomous driving encompasses four major technology categories—all of which involve data. They are:

  • Data processing, with deep-learning algorithms;
  • Data transfer, integrating intelligence across the network, from the cloud to connected devices and throughout systems;
  • Human-machine interface (HMI) with advanced graphics capabilities and security; and
  • In-vehicle computing, featuring high compute performance per watt and power-efficient silicon.

The autonomous vehicle is replete with cameras and sensors capturing volumes of data, estimated at 4,000 gigabytes per day, which places greater demands on compute capabilities. At the heart of this intricate driverless vehicle ecosystem sits one of the most critical elements: the embedded computer. Part data collector and part data cruncher, the system paints a virtual picture and then navigates through the environment safely and efficiently.

Enter Intel and Crystal Group

Already entrenched in the automotive, IoT, and technology markets, Intel is focused on establishing an industry standard for autonomous driving and helping to propel the industry forward. Intel intends to achieve these goals through a combination of the company’s own high-tech tools and key industry partnerships.

“We’re not just imagining the future of autonomous cars, we’re engaging with partners to make sure it’s a reality,” Krzanich stressed at IDF 2016.

To that end, Intel officials selected Crystal Group in Hiawatha, Iowa, to engineer a custom embedded computer specifically for driverless cars, which is forming a baseline for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Crystal Group proved to be the ideal partner given its positive track record working with Intel and providing proven rugged, reliable, and robust compute architectures for a variety of safety- and mission-critical applications.

Figure 2: A maker of COTS and custom computer and electronics systems for commercial, industrial, and mil-aero applications, Crystal Group, has been tapped by Intel to engineer a custom embedded computer for driverless cars. (Image courtesy Tim Herman/Intel Corporation)

Figure 2: A maker of COTS and custom computer and electronics systems for commercial, industrial, and mil-aero applications, Crystal Group, has been tapped by Intel to engineer a custom embedded computer for driverless cars. (Image courtesy Tim Herman/Intel Corporation)

For 30 years, Crystal Group has delivered commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and custom computer and electronics systems for aerospace and defense, industrial, and commercial applications. The company’s rugged servers, workstations, displays, and embedded computers are employed on more than 500 military programs to date, including many vehicle electronics (vetronics), unmanned, and autonomous systems and platforms. At the same time, Crystal Group is accustomed to working in close collaboration with Intel, as a longtime Intel Technology Platinum Provider and an Intel IoT Solutions Alliance General Member. Industry leaders call on Crystal Group whenever programs, projects, or problems require responsiveness, quality, and innovation.

Driverless Data Center

An autonomous vehicle’s central computer system packs all the processing power and capabilities of a high-end server in a compact, high-performance embedded computer (HPEC). With lives and the future of the driverless car potentially on the line, not just any embedded computer will do.

The self-driving vehicle’s embedded computer serves as its brain and must be robust, reliable, and rugged. It also has to be compact, quiet, and limit the heat entering the passenger compartment. Failure is not an option, so Crystal Group’s team of engineers set out to custom-craft an autonomous vehicle computer that would meet or exceed Intel’s exacting specifications, application requirements, and expectations.

Crystal Group’s team engineered the company’s RS363S15F Rugged 3U Server (Figure 1) from the ground up to meet autonomous vehicle and automotive market needs for data collection, high-performance processing, and data storage in a rugged, compact form factor.

Small Size, Weight, and Power

Engineering the optimal embedded computer for autonomous vehicles is not without its design challenges. Space is at a premium in virtually all modern vehicles (think trucks) and is particularly scarce in driverless cars, especially given the wealth of electronics and electro-optics required for safe operation. At the same time, added weight has a direct and negative impact on vehicle range and should be avoided. Additionally, the large number of in-vehicle systems drawing power simultaneously should preclude the use of power-hungry devices.

Crystal Group engineers have decades of experience engineering systems that meet strict military requirements for small size, weight, and power (SWaP). They applied the same expertise to the novel autonomous vehicle computer, making it compact, lightweight, and capable of producing a limited system temperature rise.

Power management is an issue with autonomous capabilities. With the amount of data ingest and processing, the central processing unit (CPU) count for the system approaches forty 2-gighertz (GHz) cores. This CPU load—coupled with a custom field-programmable gate array (FPGA) collecting camera data and several general-purpose graphics processing unit (GPGPU) cards processing the images—quickly adds up to a 1-kilowatt (kW) load for the driving system, excluding network switching, controller area network (CAN) bus interfaces, relays, and cooling system. Crystal Group has aggressively worked with Intel and OEMs to reduce the power draw. As these systems become more embedded, SWaP is expected to drop dramatically.

The Crystal Group RS363S15F Rugged 3U Server provides high-performance computing and up to 1 terabyte (TB) of high-capacity data storage in a small, SWaP-optimized package designed to fit virtually any vehicle, no matter how compact. It measures 5.25 inches (13.34 centimeters) high by 17.5 inches (44.45 cm) wide by 15 inches (38.1 cm) deep; weighs between 35 pounds and 40 pounds (15.88 and 18.14 kilograms), depending on configuration; and is available with a choice of 600-watt (120/240VAC) or 1005-watt (18 to 36VDC) power supply.

Data ingress is accomplished through Ethernet, USB, and FPGA interfaces to the server. The system as configured can accommodate in excess of 40 sensor inputs of varying complexity.

Flexibility and scalability are always favorable attributes, potentially helping to extend the system’s usable life, facilitate upgrades, and lower the vehicle’s total cost of ownership (TCO). As a result, Crystal Group designed its RS363S15F in-vehicle server with six full-height expansion slots; three or six removable SATA, SAS, or HDD external bays; and an optional CD/DVD/Blu-ray Disc (read/write).

Powerful Processing and Thermal Management

Autonomous vehicle computers cannot skimp on processing power. The system will be confronted with a growing volume of data from multiple sources, and will need to ingest, process, display, and share usable information in real time. As drivers and pedestrians know well, a lot can happen in a split second on today’s roads. The entire autonomous driving ecosystem needs to work fast to speed reaction time; a sluggish or unreliable system could prove disastrous.

Historically, engineers have had to make design tradeoffs, choosing between functionality and footprint as they struggle to pack as much compute power as possible in a compact, lightweight, low-power system. The tide is turning, however, thanks to modern chipsets and continued CPU, GPU, ASIC, and FPGA innovation. Intel, for example, has already made significant progress in consolidating motherboard-level functionality into its chips.

Crystal Group follows the Intel embedded long-life roadmap and powers the driverless vehicle computer with Intel processors, including an Intel Xeon® processor and Intel Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX). The system can be configured with a choice of leading-edge Intel Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, or Broadwell CPUs.

The use of powerful, heat-generating processors in a small space can exacerbate already challenging thermal management scenarios. No section of an automobile—interior, engine compartment, or trunk—is immune from the sweltering heat of a summer day, for example, which further compounds thermal issues. Too much heat can render compute components unreliable and even cause a system failure—an unacceptable risk in autonomous vehicles.

Crystal Group’s novel thermal-management approach to the in-vehicle computer sets it apart, and combines efficient, low-power/low-heat Intel processors with four CPU temperature-controlled, high-speed, high-volume fans and optional liquid cooling.

Rugged and Reliable

Autonomous vehicle computers should be rugged to ensure they work reliably over a long operational life in environments that are inhospitable to common computer systems. Average commercial computers and servers are designed for use in office environments only, whereas rugged systems designed from the start to withstand harsh environments deliver benefits such as long life and lower total cost of ownership—to the satisfaction of owners, operators, and manufacturers.

All rugged systems are not alike, however. It is advantageous to adopt rugged products that have been built from the ground up to last, extensively tested and proven to meet or exceed industry standards, and delivered and backed by a provider with a long, successful track record of delivering rugged, highly reliable systems.

Driverless cars and onboard systems will encounter extreme shock and vibration, temperature highs and lows, and a variety of harmful elements, such as dust, sand, humidity, fog, rain, snow, and ice. Crystal Group’s all-weather RS363S15F Rugged 3U Server is designed to withstand the rigors of the road and various environmental factors, and is tested to meet strict U.S. Department of Defense-defined environmental standards, including MIL-STD-810G and MIL-S-910D. It is also crafted using lightweight aluminum construction, and easily mounted (via Delrin glides, Jonathan® rails, or fixed mount) for greater stability.

IoT Connectivity

Crystal Group and Intel have been working together and with other technology companies and automotive OEMs as part of the Intel Internet of Things Solutions Alliance, focused on systems that support the entire driverless vehicle ecosystem.

The Crystal Group RS363S15F Rugged 3U Server, listed in the Intel IoT Solutions Alliance Directory, is now available off-the-shelf or customized for use in myriad applications, platforms, and systems. Major automotive manufacturers have already selected Crystal Group’s rugged and reliable server for use in autonomous vehicles—likely coming to a road near you soon.


High-res-Jim-ShawJim Shaw, Executive Vice President of Engineering at Crystal Group, has led the engineering department and new product development team since 2006. His profound engineering design acumen led to Crystal Group’s revolutionary rugged series (RS) chassis for military and industrial computing, and grew the company’s rugged product portfolio to include embedded, storage, displays, switches, carbon fiber options, and custom power supply designs. Shaw holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Iowa State University and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Iowa. Prior to joining Crystal Group, he held an engineering management position at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was nominated as Engineer of the Year three times for his work in high-performance electronics packaging. He has authored or co-authored eight international patents over his career.

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