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Car Diagnostics, Out For a Spin

IBM is looking to help automobile manufacturers and mechanics improve the way they pinpoint problems in vehicles with a new diagnostics service.

The Parametric Analysis Center service lets groups develop reports and services to understand how a vehicle is performing or determine whether a trend is emerging among a group of vehicles that needs attention.

Manufacturers deliver the data to IBM, which will analyze the data with advanced algorithms and make treatment recommendations.

Carmakers or mechanics can use the data to more rapidly identify and treat flaws in large vehicle fleets, helping both the companies and their customers navigate what can be a tricky warranty process, said Nathaniel Mills, who invented the technology at IBM's research lab in Hawthorne, N.Y.

"There's an awful lot of data that is flowing around inside your car just to allow it to operate," Mills said. "We figured we could take advantage of their information and help people figure out what's going on with these strange problems that are starting to crop up."

Mills acknowledged that such a diagnostics technology can be used for several vertical industries. But the auto industry is ripe for this kind of technology because vehicles today are so complicated. Certain cars can have anywhere from 30 to 80 types of embedded controllers, often crafted by different engineers, Mills explained.

In one problem scenario, Mills said a manufacturer might have one of the embedded controllers display a diagnostic trouble code. A driver wouldn't notice and the problem might not be detected until the car malfunctioned and he or she took it into the shop. IBM's new service zeros in on those trouble codes and figures out the context in which they occurred.

Diagnosing vehicle ailments and managing warranty lifecycles remains a challenge for any automaker, but the chores can get even trickier as more and more dealers order cars with telematics systems.

Telematics often refer to automobile systems that combine global positioning satellite (GPS) tracking and other wireless communications for automatic roadside assistance and remote diagnostics.

In offering the service for the first time at the Society for Automotive Engineers Conference in Detroit this week, IBM is aiming to stay ahead of the curve, Mills said.

The service uses data management, mining, and analysis technologies from Big Blue's autonomic computing and DB2 software to study data from electronic components in cars. Mills said IBM hasn't decided whether to brand the Parametric Analysis Center as a DB2 or WebSphere service because its functions cross-cut both product lines.

The service was tested for root-cause analysis, vehicle trends and pattern comparisons among different cars, with the help of the US Army's National Automotive Center and several carmakers Mills declined to name.

IBM is offering the Parametric Analysis Center service now through IBM Business Consulting Services. IBM will host and run the application built on the service for manufacturers, providing Web services APIs for access. Big Blue will also help co-write an application with an OEM and let them run it in-house.