Sensor Technologies Continue to Transform Automobiles

July 1, 2005
Sensors and sensing technologies have permeated every aspect of modern automobiles. It is hard to imagine a car without sensors. Only a few years ago

Sensors and sensing technologies have permeated every aspect of modern automobiles. It is hard to imagine a car without sensors. Only a few years ago when I was doing research for a report that was printed in a major electronics publication, my previous employer, I found that there were more than 30 sensors in an average economical model. However, some high-end luxury models at the time were exceptions to the rule with electronic content considerably higher and the sensor usage more than twice the average model. From safety to comfort, sensors continue to impact the design of cars, both high-end luxury as well as economical types. Consequently, the use of sensors, which includes all varieties, continues to rise year after year. Thus, its usage has skyrocketed lately. According to marketing consultant Roger Grace, president of Roger Grace Associates, a consultancy specializing in strategic marketing of microsystem technologies (MST), the sensor usage has risen substantially in the last couple of years in economical cars to reach a count that is more than 75. And the trend continues.

Accordingly, all major carmakers around the globe are exploiting the benefits of sensor technologies to meet legislation on engine emissions and enhance a vehicle's safety, comfort and entertainment features. Therefore, Strategy Analytics has predicted that the global market for automotive sensors is expected to grow from about $8.8 billion in 2004 to around $12.7 billion in 2008. With expanding vehicle production in China and the rest of the world (ROW), the market research firm forecasts that the market for automotive sensors will grow to $14 billion by 2011.

Based on this rapid growth of automotive sensors, a one-day symposium was conducted on this subject last month as part of Sensors Expo & Conference. And, it was organized by none other than our own technical contributing editor Randy Frank. Several presentations in this one-day event unveiled sensor technologies that promise to transform a vehicle into an environment of its own. From vision enhancement cameras, Lidar, radar, and sonar to infrared (IR) sensors and MST devices, sensors are moving into areas unimaginable only few years ago.

Speaking of MST, many new applications are on the horizon for these silicon MEMS-based sensors. They are being developed to address applications beyond the traditional airbag accelerometers and manifold absolute pressure sensing. In fact, in the paper given by Grace, “Current & Future High Volume “Killer” Applications of Microsystems Technology,” the author identifies more than 70 potential applications for these devices — some new and some replacing old mechanical and electromechanical devices. And many of these have found their initial application in high-end vehicles like BMW 7xx and Mercedes Benz 5xx, but are rapidly migrating to lower-cost, high-volume models as well. As a result, the market growth for MST sensors is expected to be in the 12% to 14% CAGR range from 2002 to 2007, according to Grace's paper.

As per the above paper, some emerging high-volume applications for MST devices include wheel speed, tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), rate/yaw sensing, adaptive braking, fuel evaporation, fuel line, cam/crankshaft position, X by wire, and passenger seat occupancy. Currently, for example, variable reluctance (VR) sensors are used in the wheels of many vehicles to sense their rotation/speed for antilock-braking systems (ABS). These discrete wire wound and magnet solutions are being replaced by Hall-effect (HE) sensors and anisotropic magnetoresistive ratio (AMR) solutions, which embody MST.

Thus, as sensors begin to penetrate every nook and corner of the automobile and wrap all around it, makers are redefining the car for safety, security, protection, comfort, telematics and infotainment. With a mind of its own, is it time to call this marvel by some other name?

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