My Favorite Smart Product

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine (a non-engineer) about Pocobor and mechatronics (smart products). It was a meandering conversation about what mechatronics is, how you make something mechatronic, where mechatronics is going and such. (I wrote this post a few months ago which describes what mechatronics is in detail.) At one point she asked me what my favorite mechatronic product is. Without the slightest hesitation I answered “the automobile”. She was a bit surprised, thinking I would say something like a robot, or some other crazy gizmo. The truth is, cars have always been a driving (pun intended) force behind my desire to be an engineer. And a big reason I became a mechatronics engineer is because almost every car on the road today is a mechatronic product.

Cars weren’t always mechatronic. In fact for most of their history they were very much a mechanical system, with a bit of electronics (radio, lighting, etc.) here and there. However, what made a car a car (i.e. the engine, the carburetor, the suspension, and the transmission) were intricate pieces of mechanical hardware (with the exception, I guess, of the spark ignition system). It wasn’t until the end of the 70s and the beginning of 80s that cars started to become mechatronic in nature with the introduction of electronic fuel injection, and flow rate sensors such as the Bosch L-H Jetronic systems  to replace carburetors (read more about fuel injection here).

With the advent of cheaper and more powerful microcontrollers, as well as cheaper and more accurate sensors, came such breakthroughs as anti-lock braking systems, supplemental restraint systems (airbags), and electronic stability control. Today automobiles are the definition of mechatronics. They combine advanced software, with high-tech electronics, and elegant design to create amazing pieces of machinery. Everything from the transmission to the fuel injection to the valve timing to adaptive cruise control is controlled in some way by an embedded microcontroller, relying on accurate yet inexpensive sensors ranging from accelerometers to flow meters to position sensors.


It is also no coincidence that automotive technology has advanced step for step with advances in mechatronics. The automobile, with its economy of scale and demand for precision sensors and microcontrollers to control the ever more advanced systems found inside, is a major, if not the biggest, driver of technological advances in mechatronics and the steep decrease in component prices.

But that is only a part of why I love the automobile, and why I consider it my favorite mechatronic example. The other part is because it has the ability to inspire, to make you stop whatever you are doing, and stare. True, not every car designed elicits such emotion, but when a car that is truly exceptional drives by, everyone looks in awe and desire, and you don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate it. That is the rare thing about automobiles compared to most other products out there. When done right it makes everyone, from the youngest school boy, to the oldest grandma appreciate excellence in design, the same way a Picasso or Monet might.

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