Where is the automotive industry heading with vehicle electronics and software? The short answer is that it's going from silicon-defined systems to software-defined systems. Let's look deeper and begin with a snapshot of the Ford F-150 pickup truck. Today, this vehicle contains 20 electronic modules, 50 sensors, 40 actuators, and three in-vehicle communication networks. Luxury vehicles today contain upward of 70 electronic modules and a similar number of sensors and actuators and may even utilize fiber-optic networks to distribute functionality and data. That's a lot of computational complexity for a system built to endure 10 years of Alaska-like winters and Arizona-like summers and to be driven by operators of every imaginable type.
Two major trends on the road ahead are the embedded placement of electronic chips into otherwise mechanical "steel" structures, broadly referred to in the automotive industry as "mechatronics," and the increased presence of bits (information and software) among atoms (silicon)—an emerging field known in the industry as "infotronics."
Mechatronics allows for integrated sensor actuator-based features, such as automatically activated windshield wipers that might contain rain sensors embedded into a wiper blade controller. Similar mechatronics examples may be found elsewhere around the vehicle, from headlamp systems that automatically turn on to high or low beam based on location and oncoming headlamp detection to powertrain systems that might incorporate electronic valve actuation.
Infotronics is redefining the creation, design, and development of infotainment and body systems. Your entry-level vehicle might have a radio and two speakers and half a dozen radio preset buttons. Would you like, in addition, to have a built-in CD player or an MP3 player or a video player? Infotronics will enable the flexibility of customizable offerings. Meanwhile, how can you integrate your personal data—music and other preferences, including seat and mirror positions—into your vehicle? As we move into the future, information-driven software (bits) will increasingly define what your automobile is and what it does.
Coming to a dealership near you will be vehicles that talk to your smart cards, your cell phone, your portable video, music, or game player, and your home, gas station, and other vehicles. Stay tuned on the road ahead!