Electronics Charts Auto's Future Course

Oct. 1, 2004
While electronics has been on the automotive scene ever since the introduction of semiconductor transistors in the 1950s, only in the last few years has

While electronics has been on the automotive scene ever since the introduction of semiconductor transistors in the 1950s, only in the last few years has it pervaded almost every section of the vehicle. Thus, it has begun to reshape its form and feel. From high-performance entertainment and global positioning systems (GPS) to drive-by-wire and active occupant safety, electronics is bringing about a radical change in modern and emerging vehicles. Recognizing that electronics is the wave of the future, automakers worldwide have commenced that transformation process, and the pace of development is astonishingly rapid.

Until now, the high cost of electronics was a prohibitive factor. However, advances in semiconductor processes and manufacturing technologies have changed that scenario. Coupled with more players in the supply chain, it is helping suppliers to make automotive electronics competitive with consumer electronics and thus, facilitating electronics to permeate every aspect of the auto system.

As multimedia and infotainment products gain popularity, the OEMs also have stepped up the focus on occupant safety. While earlier designs have made significant progress in protecting the driver and the passengers, automobiles are still prone to collisions and crashes. Hence, automakers, in conjunction with electronics suppliers, are developing a new generation of safety technologies, such as blind spot detection, collision avoidance, adaptive cruise control, and pre-crash sensing systems. Interestingly, as the auto industry readies these occupant safety technologies, the government has taken a wise step. To help stimulate the adoption of intelligent vehicle sensing and control systems in U.S.-sold vehicles, the U.S. House of Representatives recently proposed a new law, Intelligent Vehicle Highway Safety Act of 2004, according to a new study by ABI Research. The ABI Research report suggests that such government support will spur the adoption of these technologies despite their initial high cost.

Because such anticipatory systems will deploy sensors, proprietary algorithms, and high-speed communications to interact with other system functions in this integrated methodology, the role of system software will grow significantly. Concurrently, these electronic controls and systems are entering the new digital era. Unlike the conventional analog approach, the new solutions are also reaping the benefits of microprocessors and digital signal processors (DSPs) to transform the modern car into an interactive vehicle system of the future. While the smart digital control will allow functions such as brakes, steering, powertrain, and similar other vehicle subsystems to interact, this intelligent digital control system will permit the motorist to interact with gadgets like PDAs, cell phones and the Internet. In short, digital electronics is converting the conventional automobile into a smart environment wherein human-to-machine interface (HMI) begins to play an important role.

This further emphasizes the importance of software in forthcoming models. Like computers, software is ready to play a key role in upgrading your car's functionality and features. As the new electronic revolution sets the stage for plug-and-play and interoperable components, it will also help bring down the number of microcontroller units in future cars. Toward that end, German automakers and electronics suppliers have formed a consortium that intends to put a standard software vehicle infrastructure on the road by 2006.

This spate of activity is spurring the growth of electronic and semiconductor content in today's average vehicle. As a result, the auto electronics market is growing at an impressive pace.

In essence, as mechanical and electromechanical methods give way to electrical and electronic technologies, novel vehicle architectures are being developed to further accelerate this transformation. Unlike traditional bottom-up architecture, a top-down engineering approach is under way wherein models, simulation, and analysis will be integral parts of the design flow.

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