Things are not pretty in the auto industry these days. As I write this, Ford and GM are posting gut-wrenching numbers, announcing more layoffs and petitioning for emergency loans from the federal government. Merger talk is amplified and the business press questions the viability of the Big 3. With economists predicting a deep recession, it's hard even for an optimist like me to look beyond today's gloom to brighter times. But two things are for sure: 1) we will get through this downturn and back to growth, b) the auto industry is going to look very different after this transition.
Attending the Convergence show last month was a good place to think about future technology directions and the success factors for a re-tooled auto industry. Another apparent certainty: the level of automation and the percentage of electronics in that new era of automotive are going to be substantially greater than previously forecast. We're going to be driving a mix of turbos, hybrids, micro-hybrids and eventually electric cars. Advances in battery technologies will have a bigger impact on our future than just about anything else. And even though gas prices are falling, given the overall economic dire straits, the savings to the wallet at 2 cents per mile to drive electric vs. 12 cents per mile for internal combustion puts the writing on the wall. (Those per-mile figures are from Frank Weber, GM's global chief engineer working on the Volt, who I heard speak at a Convergence event hosted by ZMD.)
Green Engineering is the hottest growth driver in auto electronics, joining infotainment and active safety systems as transformational areas for our marketplace. While the auto industry is often faulted for moving too slowly into clean tech, it was impressive at Convergence to see just how much new technology is already out there, ready to be designed in to the next generation of transport. Comparing this show to the event two years ago, power-saving technologies have really zoomed to the forefront. Whereas such technologies were peripheral at Convergence 2006, they're now in the spotlight: engineers have a heads-down focus to squeeze out every last mpg of fuel efficiency. Hopefully, this push to new greener technology is going to be further fueled by government investment, as it seems to be a key part of Barrack Obama's vision for how to drive growth in the economy.
Amazingly, there seemed to be a fuel efficiency twist to almost everything at Convergence: even technologies under development for safety and driver convenience. For example, Continental was touting its eHorizon system that uses GPS data to anticipate road topography and to then send data via the CAN bus to the transmission or the engine control unit to optimize for fuel savings (as well as for active safety enhancements). Behind the scenes in such new applications, NAVTEQ announced that STMicroelectronics is now part of its Map and Positioning Engine (MPE) partner program, through which application developers can build map-enhanced solutions that are “always on” and that don't require a navigation route.
Similarly, DSRC (dedicated short-range communications) systems for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure had previously been touted for active safety enhancements and are now being envisioned as great ways to create more fuel-efficient traffic flow — for example, to communicate from traffic lights to cars to indicate the wait time and thus the ideal idle conditions.
Such innovative ideas give us a reason to be hopeful about the future of the auto industry. As a further example, in this issue we feature the winning entries in the “Rev Up Fuel Efficiency” design contest we ran in conjunction with Infineon. The contest engendered some great ideas on how to gain greater fuel efficiency. You can read more about the winning designs in Rev Up Fuel Efficiency Design Contest Winners.