A decade ago, the auto industry was preparing for the inevitable flood of digital data in next-generation vehicles by promoting hot new data buses, such as FlexRay and MOST (Media Oriented Systems Transfer). At the time, no one hinted that Ethernet might one day take up residence in vehicles.
That, however, is exactly what's happening today. Freescale Semiconductor recently rolled out a new 32-bit microcontroller, called Qorivva MPC5604E, which is aimed at the surround camera parking assist systems typically found in luxury cars. The new device is designed to process and compress data images, and then send them over a built-in Fast Ethernet controller to create a 360-degree camera view around the vehicle.
The twist on the story is that Freescale teamed with BMW AG on the development of the device. Why's that a twist? Because BMW was instrumental a decade ago in promoting MOST as the high-speed data bus of the future, for such applications as in-car DVD players, "infotainment" systems, and, yes, cameras. Back then, the idea was to use MOST because it offered the bandwidth needed to transmit bit-gobbling data imagery. And now, after tens of thousands of hours of work with MOST, BMW and many of the others in the auto industry have begun looking to an Ethernet data speedway.
In a press release, BMW was quoted as saying Freescale's new MCU "will help establish Ethernet as a dependable long-term solution for broadcast of video and other forms of data around the automobile."
Ethernet was barely considered a decade ago. It was viewed as a PC technology, rather than an automotive solution. But as so many of today's technology stories go, Ethernet emerged because it offered gobs of bandwidth, and because it's a mature technology with very high production volumes around the IT industry. And that, of course, translates to lower cost.
Freescale says Ethernet will help engineers deal with a car full of cameras -- two in the front fender, another inside the car, and a fourth one for backing up. And, maybe more. By compressing images with the MCU and sending the images over Ethernet, Freescale engineers say they will eliminate the need for special cables, thereby cutting down on the bill of materials. "We can compress the images from four, five, six, or even seven cameras and send them out over a built-in Ethernet controller to create one image for the dashboard," says Ray Cornyn, director of global automotive products for Freescale's Microcontroller Solutions Group.
To be sure, other data buses will remain. CAN and FlexRay will continue to handle data from engines and transmissions, along with braking and smart suspension systems. And the low-cost LIN bus, meanwhile, will continue to stake its claim in the interior, for lighting, door locks, and window lifts.
But Ethernet appears to be gaining momentum. And Freescale and BMW are hardly alone in this vision of the future. In a recent EE Times story, Bosch Automotive Electronics VP Rainer Kallenbach predicted growth for Ethernet in the car. "In Bosch's scenario, Ethernet will start to offer an alternative to MOST150 beginning around the year 2015," wrote EE Times editor Christoph Hammerschmidt. "By 2020, it will most likely replace MOST."