GPS and “infotainment” may grab the attention of consumers, but improved safety systems may ultimately be the biggest payoffs from the unrelenting march of electronics into the auto world.
From chipmakers to first-tier suppliers, the companies that develop new technology for automakers are offering new safety solutions unimaginable even a generation ago: adaptive cruise control, lane departure systems, night vision and much more.
Such innovations, notes a new Strategy Analytics research study, will help boost the annual semiconductor market for automotive from $18 billion in 2006 to $29 billion by 2013. And while the production of light vehicles worldwide is expected to increase by just 3.6 percent annually in the 2005-2010 period, the research outfit predicts an 8.2 percent yearly growth rate for automotive semiconductor spending during the same period.
“The vehicle OEMs will need to continually innovate to meet tightening emissions and safety legislation, and to respond to competitive pressure and changing consumer expectations,” says Chris Webber, VP of automotive practice for Strategy Analytics. “This is driving up demand in all semiconductor component areas.”
The Race for Safety
Siemens VDO is one of many global suppliers seeking to harness electronics to create safer cars. Its pro.pilot active safety system, for example, includes new collision-avoidance, night-vision and driver-monitoring features.
“Siemens has been involved for a long time in systems that protect drivers when accidents occur, such as advanced airbag systems, so the next big challenge is developing technologies to prevent accidents,” says Business Development engineer Ron Cook.
As early as 2008, Siemens expects to see commercial use of its Active Cruise Control system (ACC). The system consists of infrared emitters, a photodiode as a receiver for the bundled invisible infrared light, and data analysis software and electronics. Rather than radar, the system uses less-expensive Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) optical sensors.
In an actual application, the sensor continuously measures the transmitted infrared ray's propagation time, which is the measurement of the time light needs to travel from the sensor to the vehicle ahead and back again. Based on these propagation times, the system calculates the distance to the next vehicle ahead and automatically adjusts the car's speed. In contrast to a radar sensor, the LIDAR system can detect rain, fog and snow — and adjust speed accordingly.
Siemens also is addressing lane-changing accidents caused by blind spots, a problem responsible for some 830,000 damaged or destroyed vehicles a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The company's Blind Spot Detection System, expected to be pioneered in North American luxury vehicles with the 2008 model year, uses 24 GHz dual-beam radar sensors. Mounted to the back of the rear wheels and the side exterior of the vehicle, the sensors detect objects approaching the driver's blind spot and trigger a warning, such as a light in the side mirror or a slight vibration in the steering wheel.
Other pro.pilot systems include sign recognition and lane departure systems, both of which feature infrared cameras. Cook notes that in the 2008 model year, a European carmaker will incorporate a Siemens VDO system that will use one infrared camera and two sets of software in the same module for both lane departure and sign recognition.
“OEMs are challenging us on how much active-driver-assist technology we can pack in one spot,” says Cook.
Among other electronics-based safety devices not yet scheduled for production vehicles, Siemens is working on a driver-monitoring system. It features a dashboard-mounted digital camera that focuses on a driver's eyes to detect drowsiness and, if needed, triggers an alarm. A night-vision system, also in development, features infrared emitters integrated into headlights and a head-up display that projects images of the road ahead.
Will consumers accept such innovations? There is still debate on how much of the driving function motorists want to turn over to such automatic systems, but Brad Warner, a Siemens spokesman in Auburn Hills, MI, says drivers of luxury vehicles already have shown a willingness to “pay a premium” for safety. He also expects that safety innovations debuted in upscale models will eventually find their way into mid-range and even economy models.
Others in the Hunt
Siemens is by no means the only vendor pursuing safety technology. In the lane departure area alone, for example, competing companies range from industry giants like Visteon, Valeo and Contential to startups like California-based Canesta. Last fall, GM committed to a contract with Continental on a contract to supply sensors, to be mounted under the grill, for collision avoidance. Continental, which has been testing this technology on the Cadillac DTS, has also developed cameras for side-view mirrors to monitor blind spots.
“All major suppliers are actively working on camera-based sensing technology,” says David Alexander of ABI Research, Oyster Bay, NY. “But they don't all agree on which applications will be first to take off in the market.” He adds that the first OEMs to make low-cost, active safety systems available to the mass market should reap huge rewards.
Canesta is touting its low-cost CMOS-based imaging sensors, which it claims operate effectively, both in extreme sunlight and in rapidly changing light conditions. The company's patented “SunShield” technology, aimed at safety applications like blind spot detection and backup warning, features bursts of infrared light from light-emitting diodes to illuminate the field of view. The system then measures the “time of flight” it takes the photons of infrared light to bounce off objects and return to the sensor, which forms a 3D image.
To ensure reliable performance in varying light conditions, the Canesta system uses a series of shorter infrared pulses to keep the amount of ambient light for any one sample within the dynamic range of the sensor. During each sample, the system receives photons from both the ambient background and from the infrared ranging signals. At the end of the sample, the signal from the ambient sources is discarded, while the ranging signal is saved.
“The future of vehicles is that they will be equipped with sensors that are able to resolve objects and persons in real-time and in three dimensions,” says Canesta CEO Jim Spare. “But to really be practical, the sensors will have to be able to operate in the brightest sunlight, and in rapidly changing light conditions, such as a car rushing past the shadows of nearby trees without making errors in discrimination. This is the problem we have solved.”
Sunshield, which received the 2006 Frost & Sullivan innovation award for automotive vision system technology, is likely to debut in a Honda vehicle. The application will use a 3D camera in the cockpit headliner to sense the size of a passenger to appropriately deploy airbags. The Japanese automaker has invested more than $5 million to assist Canesta in developing applications for automotive.
At the Chip Level
Suppliers of new auto safety devices will be depending on the semiconductor manufacturers to develop new microprocessors essential to their new designs. Texas Instruments recently unveiled a new symmetrical dual-core microcontroller, the TMS570, which the company says is the first microprocessor to meet IEC 61508 SIL3, the highest level of safety designated for automotive applications. Co-developed with Robert Bosch, this microprocessor will find its way into next-generation braking, steering and chassis control applications by year-end 2010, according to Mathias Poppel, TI's product marketing manager for advanced embedded control in automotive.
This new microprocessor will be a building block for new electrical solutions for braking, such as the electric booster and brake-by-wire systems expected to come on line in the next five years. These innovations will reduce fuel consumption, weight, cost and noise in tomorrow's cars. The microprocessor is also compatible with the auto industry's new FlexRay electronic network, which can transmit and receive data 10 times faster than conventional controller area networks (CAN).
Meanwhile, says Poppel, auto suppliers are increasingly using TI's C6000 family of DSPs in a variety of driver-assist applications, such as lane departure warning, blind spot detection and adaptive cruise control.
Among other semiconductor products recently introduced for safety and reliability in auto applications:
Analog Devices unveiled a new mixed signal IC, the ADuC703x, for monitoring car batteries. Taxed by the barrage of new electronic entertainment and safety features, defective or discharged batteries account for 60 percent of electronic malfunctions in cars, according to The Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club, Europe's largest drivers' club. The new single-chip IC, located on the negative battery pole, reduces costs by integrating several components, such as A-to-D converters, a microcontroller, local interconnect network, programmable gain amplifier and Flash memory. Donal Killackey, product marketing manager for Analog Devices, says BMW was the first to install a battery monitoring module that uses the chip, and at least three other carmakers are getting ready to adopt the technology. As suppliers drive costs down, he expects the device to move beyond premium cars and light trucks to broader applications.
Freescale introduced the MPC5510 family of 32-bit automotive microcontrollers featuring dual-core architecture. The company says the new microcontrollers can help reduce the number of modules in the car cockpit area through higher integration of gateway and body electronics functions, such as seat and mirror control, tire pressure monitoring and remote keyless entry. The controllers are being used in one of the industry's first applications of FlexRay in a production vehicle, BMW's new X5 sports activity vehicle, which features active roll stabilization and electronic damping control.
Atmel announced three new ICs for hostile, under-the-hood applications. Featuring a silicon-on-insulator substrate, the chips can withstand temperatures up to 200C and are used as motor drivers in turbocharger and exhaust gas recirculation systems. In addition, the company introduced a new power supply IC for airbags. Among its new features, the IC automatically draws its energy from a backup capacitor if the car loses its supply voltage, such as a cable disconnect during a crash.
No End to the Boom
All these examples barely scratch the surface of new electronics-based safety innovations, and there is much more to come. For example, IMS, the UK-based research group, projects that applications of electronic stability control in new cars worldwide will jump from 21 percent in 2006 to 35 percent by 2012. Even in the fledgling brake-by-wire area, usage could be as high as 5 percent of new cars in another five years.
Certainly, the move toward more electronics in autos won't come without many technical challenges. With each additional electronic component, the complexity of wiring harnesses becomes even greater, note experts from Research and Markets, an Ireland-based study group. Software-driven digital architecture makes that challenge less complicated, but the task gets tougher as more driver information and active safety systems are added to the mix. The expected debut of 42V electrical systems will make the design problems even more daunting.
Still, Research and Markets sees no end to the surge of electronic applications in automotive applications worldwide. R&M researchers predict the percentage of the average car's content value traced to electronics will jump from 25 percent now to 40 percent by 2010.