A Smart Assistant that Fits in the Trunk

24/10/2016

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Three RWTH departments are involved in the development process for the electric pedestrian assistant “Ford Carr-E.”

 

It is slim, round, has four wheels, and looks a bit like an automatic lawn mower: The Carr-E is an electrically driven vehicle that is capable of transporting persons or objects such as luggage or heavy shopping bags. With a weight of about 10 kilograms and a width of about 50 centimeters, the Carr-E easily fits into the trunk of a car.

The small vehicle is especially useful when traveling, for example to assist with luggage between the parking lot and the airport terminal. “The Carr-E has three different functions, and it can be remotely controlled using a cell phone app,” explains Benedikt Groschup from the RWTH Chair of Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components, PEM for short. “Moreover, the vehicle features a "tether mode," in which it automatically follows the user, which is useful when transporting loads. In the third mode, users can stand on the device and ride it themselves.”

The “Electrical Pedestrian Assisted Device,” or ePad, is the result of an internal, international innovation competition by Ford. The concept proposal was submitted by systems engineer Kilian Vas from Ford’s Cologne subsidiary. Out of 633 proposals, the Carr-E concept was selected by a jury for realization, and RWTH Aachen was commissioned with developing a prototype for the concept within the Ford – RWTH Aachen University Research Alliance. Here, the main challenge was to design and integrated the hardware and software components of the vehicle. In a customer-centric, experimental approach, a suitable interaction design for communication with the user was determined.

Collaboration Between Three RWTH Departments

Within less than four months, the Chairs of Communication Science, Computer Science 11, and Production Engineering of E-Mobility components, PEM, developed a fully functional prototype of the vehicle.

The PEM, headed by Professors Günther Schuh and Achim Kampker, was responsible for construction and prototyping and at first resorted to using conventional production processes such as lathing and drilling. However, as Groschup reports, “at a later stage, we also used laser and additive manufacturing technology.”

In order to achieve a high degree of maturity in the final prototype, the so-called “return-on-engineering” approach was taken, developing both a design prototype and a functional prototype – the latter focusing on the interior of the device. This made it possible to detect optimization potentials at an early development stage and to validate the basic properties of the vehicle.

The computer scientists headed by Professor Stefan Kowalewski have “breathed life into the machine,” developing new concepts enabling vehicle control and the tether function with the help of ultrasound communication.

Furthermore, the i11 team developed the entire electronics and software components, including the sensor and drive technologies as well as the lighting and sound systems. In order to realize such complex functionality in such a short period of time, agile development methods were used. Many of the new developments have been patented by now.

But the process of “breathing life” into a machine also includes to address the question of user acceptance. The Chair of Communication headed by Professor Martina Ziefle has developed and iteratively tested the smart assistant’s communicative and visual design, including look-and-feel, personality, and form and function. In empirical studies with users of all ages, the everyday usability of the device was validated.

The integration of hardware and software components as well as human-technology interaction aspects demonstrates the success of interdisciplinarity as practiced at RWTH in developing innovative and societally accepted devices and technologies.

The Ford RWTH Aachen University Research Alliance

The alliance, established in 2013, forms the basis for the successful collaboration between the Ford Motor Company and RWTH Aachen. As part of the alliance, Ford provides the University with funding to support mutually agreed research projects. RWTH Aachen is the only university to be part of Fords’ University Alliance program outside the US, where Ford has entered alliances with MIT, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University.

Source: Press and Communications