Electronic Design

Innovations In Motion Control Shape Future Vehicles

Despite all of the electronics that have found their way into today's typical medium-priced automobiles, there's still room for more. One area that needs immediate attention is power semiconductor-driven motion-control technology. While motion control has undergone dramatic improvements in cost and performance over the last few years, its impact on automobiles in the U.S and abroad has been minimal.

Except for a few luxury models, the majority of vehicles around the world continue to use older technologies that are inefficient and unreliable. They're not suitable to meet the fuel consumption mandates of Europe and the U.S. Plus, they place a burden on the engine and don't contribute toward the driver's comfort and safety.

For example, look at today's cooling system. Comprised of the age-old fan and a traditional water pump, it offers poor control of temperature and the associated high cost of maintenance. Likewise, the air conditioner compressor in the present-day car is oversized and devours unnecessary energy from the engine at every rpm, while the current, dumb, diode-driven alternator is a highly inefficient generator of electricity for modern vehicles fitted with myriad gadgets, safety features, and other electronic loads. Also, within the contemporary car engine, the turbocharger requires reconditioning. The list goes on.

The answer to these and many other issues in the automobile lies in the deployment of variable-speed motion-control technology. By using a variable-speed fan and cooling pump drive, the system will be cooled only when needed with precise temperature control. This significantly enhances engine efficiency and eliminates the fan belt along with its associated maintenance and warranty costs. In addition, system energy demands can be reduced 60% to 70% by implementing a variable-speed compressor instead of the oversized conventional compressor normally found in the air conditioner of the vehicle. Plus, another belt is removed from the system.

Similarly, by merging the generator and the starter into one motor and relocating it between the transmission and the engine, more electricity can be generated with far greater efficiency. Besides reducing brake wear, this new starter-generator combination consumes less fuel and does away with all of the belts. Plus, the start-stop capability provided by the new technology eliminates waste while idling.

The traditional turbocharger also needs replacement. An electric turbocharger that produces optimum manifold pressure at any engine rpm would minimize engine displacement to substantially cut fuel consumption and emission. Here, the electric valves will eliminate timing chains and cams to improve timing under all conditions, while greatly reducing carbon emissions. The engine would be smaller, weigh less, and have far fewer moving parts.

Other improvements can be achieved in sections beyond the engine compartment. For instance, electronic suspension will replace shock absorbers with electronic actuators that dynamically compensate for the bumps and avoid dangerous rollover conditions. As a result, a medium-priced vehicle can offer the handling conditions of a sports car with the smooth ride of a luxury automobile.

Variable-speed motion control is a critical enabling technology for future vehicles. Recent improvements in process and manufacturing of power semiconductor and management technology costs have been slashed to make variable-speed motion control affordable. Furthermore, such refinements have been combined with packaging advances to deliver intelligent multichip modules that facilitate system-level solutions in one package. Thus, a high-performance, fuel-efficient, safe, and comfortable vehicle is within the reach of the auto industry. Automakers worldwide can easily implement these advances to the benefit of both suppliers and consumers. Moreover, they can deliver a vastly improved vehicle sooner than anticipated.

But simply replacing one technology with another isn't the way to go. A team effort is required here to tap the benefits of this new technology to the fullest. Hence, automakers and power semiconductor developers must work together in partnerships. That means power semiconductors, thermomechanical systems, software, and packaging must all be developed in unison to deliver solutions that are superior to their predecessors in economics and performance. These partnerships can develop into long-term strategic alliances to closely align technology roadmaps and product development processes. This will result in a more successful integration of power electronics systems into automotive applications. A system-level approach to variable-speed motor control is the key to mass adoption of this promising technology.

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