Programmed to win


By Barry Fox THE processor chip that powers Apple Macintosh computers may help McLaren’s Formula One racing cars to compete in next year’s world championship. The Year 2000 controller, developed by McLaren’s sister company Tag Electronic Systems, is the first car control system to use software running on a consumer PC chip rather than special pre-programmed chips. Tag will be using the PowerPC chip, which IBM, Apple and Motorola developed to compete with Intel’s Pentium chips. The designers say that Pentium chips generate too much heat to work in a sealed metal box with no ventilation. “We needed something rugged, and tough as old boots,” says Peter van Manen, operations director at Tag’s development centre in Woking, Surrey. “You can’t risk car failure because of electronic failure. And it’s hard to believe how horrible the working environment is in a Formula One car”. In the early 1990s, racing car designers experimented with on-board electronics that transmitted performance data from sensors round the car to a trackside computer. This computer sent back real-time signals that controlled the engine, gearbox, clutch and suspension. The driver only had to steer, accelerate and brake. Then in 1993, motor sport’s ruling body decreed that Formula One cars could only transmit data, not receive it. So today’s cars need an inbuilt control system. But until now no one has been able to make an on-board computer that is small and light, has enough processing power to give complete control in real time, and is sufficiently robust to keep working throughout a race. Racing teams have so far used controllers with dedicated chips connected by heavy cables to 70 heat, pressure and velocity sensors dotted round the car. The only way to tweak the controller has been to rewrite the program and change the chips. Tag’s new system relies on four PowerPCs working in parallel. The car vibrates too violently for for programs and data to be stored on disc drives, so flash-memory chips are used instead. Light, thin wires carry data round the car as an 8-megabit-per-second serial stream. During a race, data from the car’s sensors are processed in real time to optimise engine performance and vehicle stability. Tag’s engineers at Woking regularly update the operating system, and e-mail new versions to tracks round the world as soon as they are ready. If this year’s tests are successful, the controllers will be used for the season which begins with the Australian Grand Prix in March 2000. Tag will sell the new system to rival teams that it already supplies with engine controllers,
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