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Nathan Hines & Richard Laager

Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Grant Profile

Most everyone knows that today’s vehicles are operated predominantly by computers. Oh, sure, there’s still that gas-powered combustible engine that’s turned out to be quite an invention. But when it comes to the brains behind what makes our vehicles do what they do, it’s all computers and cutting-edge technology. It’s also frustrating sometimes, as anyone who’s had to sweat out a “Check Engine” light would attest.

Given that, it would seem that, on the surface at least, a recent project undertaken by University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC) students Richard Laager* and Nate Hines* to “put a computer in a car” seems a bit strange, maybe even unnecessary.

But their project, part of the University of Minnesota’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, involved more than just putting a computer in a vehicle.

“Cars already have an on-board computer, but what we wanted was an embedded computer, an actual PC with an LCD touch-screen that we could shove under the seat,” Laager explained. The screen itself would sit in the dash, about where a typical car stereo would be. “We wanted it to be nice looking but also to perform well for the driver when it comes to playing music and other multi-media,” he continued.

CDs and DVDs in cars aren’t of much use to drivers, Laager said. While they play music and movies, he said drivers could enjoy much more convenience, not to mention variety.

“If you put a CD in and you love every song, it would copy the whole thing onto your computer’s hard drive, so after you put that CD in the first time you wouldn’t need to do it again,” he explained. “So you’ve eliminated the driver having to change CDs while behind the wheel.”

The same goes for the satellite radio component, be it XM or Sirius, the two main providers. “As songs would play on the radio, they’d get sucked into the computer and you’d have unlimited playback of the songs you want to hear,” Laager said. Software that users could purchase would make managing the files easier and more efficient, he added. “The software would keep track of what you listen to and what you tend to ignore, and if XM is playing a song you don’t like, you could hit a button and a song you like from your collection would play,” Laager said. “You would generate preferences, and the computer would monitor when the bad song is finished on XM and switch you back, if that’s what you wanted.”

That was just the beginning. At some point, Laager and Hines (who graduated from UMC in May and is starting his career in Indiana) wanted their car computer to coordinate climate control, too. The theory is similar: If drivers and passengers have musical preferences, they would no doubt have temperature preferences as well, and where they want those temperatures directed.

“We wanted the cabin temperature set almost automatically to what the person would want, but they’d have the capability to heat things up, cool things down, crank up the defrost, or whatever,” he explained.

There’s more. One of the more ambitious functions that the students wanted their computer to perform is in the area of diagnostics. “I’ve had my ‘check engine’ light come on many times over the years as have most people, and usually your car keeps running find and you’re wondering what to do,” Laager said. “Then you bring it to the mechanic, they hook it up to their diagnostic computer and you find out it was a fluke; some sensor went bad and the light came on.”

With the computer that Laager and Hines were developing, if a “check engine” light came on, the computer would record the occurrence and recommend that the driver take a certain course of action. “Mostly, it would recommend to do nothing,” Laager said. “But if the light came on a week later, the computer would remember that and recommend that you think about getting it checked out.”

Challenges galore

The students’ UROP project, coordinated by UMC faculty members David DeMuth and Martin Lundell, was wrought with challenges, Laager said. The music storage component worked fairly well, he said, but the pair “really got hung up” on the diagnostics component and spent most of the semester trying to clear one hurdle after another.

“We still believe it’s possible, but it’s not as easy as maybe we first thought,” he said.

The two started out hoping to rely on existing software to help them along, but Laager said they ended up having to rewrite the entire application. The students were able to write a “library” that communicates with the car’s on-board computer, a library that could be used with other programs. “The on-board computer is a text-only program, but once we put the library in there we could write parameters and graphics for the speedometer, RPM gauge, thermometer gauge and other instruments,” Laager explained. “The data is the hard part; strapping the rest on is easy.”

Easy, maybe, but time consuming as well.

“We just worked and worked and worked, every single day all spring semester,” Laager said. “We’d meet at Nate’s place and work on coding and run tests. We put lots of miles on our cars, with my laptop computer along. It was several hours a day pretty much every day, a real heavy-duty commitment.”

“Some of the less, so-called fun activities like developing thorough requirements and design documents, and designing and implementing a test plan and overall documentation are valuable things for them to take on and go through,” Lundell said. “The fun part from a developer’s perspective is the actual implementation of the project, and I think they had fun.”

The students initially chatted about doing some type of car computer project during their freshman year at UMC. Then they thought they might do something during their sophomore year through the Information Technology Professionals student club to which they belong. But it wasn’t until Lundell and DeMuth told them about UROP that they saw a way to do something substantial, Laager said. “We were able to scope out everything we’d ever dreamed of doing,” he said. “In our earliest conversations, we were just talking about tweaking an MP3 player. I think we’ve just scratched the surface; we’ve maybe done one-quarter of what could be done.”

“It was a very ambitious project from the start,” Lundell said. The fact that the host Website, sourceforge.net so quickly and readily gave the students space to host stheir project is a testament to the important work they were doing, he added.

Laager is a senior who left in late September for a semester at Oxford University in England as part of UMC’s Study Abroad program. An Information Technology Management major, he’ll return to UMC after fall semester on track to graduate in the spring of 2006.

“I really like some of the new developments in the field; people are breaking through barriers and doing some very exciting stuff,” Laager said. “I don’t really think I want to sit at a desk and write code. I’d like to be on the management side, as an IT director, and oversee some of the exciting things being done.”

He’s off to a good start. Laager, from Lancaster, Minn., started working summers at Wikstrom Telecom Internet in nearby Karlstad when he was still in high school. Now, on the side, he’s in his fifth year working for the company and is its senior system administrator. He manages web servers and email servers, among other things.

“My work really captures what I do and where I’m at right now,” he said. “Between my work experience and the opportunities I’ve had through UMC, I’m going to be good to go, I think.”

*Laager is a 2006 UMC graduate and Hines graduated in 2005.