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Toys for Engineers in Automotive

There is an old story about two shoe sales people sent to a desert island. The first looks around and sends a message back to head office, “No one here wears shoes. Coming home on next ship.” The second sent a message to his head office, “No one here wears shoes. Send several hundred pairs on next ship.” The mood at the Paris International Automotive Electronics Congress (IAEC), earlier this month, was more like that of salesman two. The tribulations of the mainstream auto market, particularly the US, was recognised, but the view was that the tier one suppliers (those who supply the car manufacturers directly) and their specialist subcontractors were likely to continue, at least for the time being, to invest in R and D. The reasons are many. They include: the recession may be short lived; there are other manufacturers outside Detroit and Western Europe (Analyst Ian Richards of Strategy Analytics said that he was tracking at least 30 Asian car manufacturers outside Japan); the desire for people in what we think of as developing economies to get off two wheels and into four; the legal requirements coming into force over the next few years that can be solved by electronics; environmental pressures on vehicles are going to be solved only with the use of electronics, and if the market is hugely competitive, electronics is a way of providing differentiation and choice.

However you look at this, there is a lot of silicon and software going into cars today, with processed silicon often costing more than the raw materials. On the whole, electronics-based systems go first into the top-end cars and then filter down, as development costs are amortised and ramping volumes and Moore’s Law operate to reduce production costs. There are barriers to penetrating the extreme bottom end: speakers at IAEC were talking about factory-fitted combined GPS and cell phone equipment costing under Euro 1000 (say US $1,300). For a car at Euro 25,000 this is not a lot of money, but for entry level cars (sub-compacts by US standards) like the Citroen C1, costing around Euro 8,000, it is still a significant percentage.

Simplifying greatly, there are several classes of electronics for cars. (These don’t necessarily match the classes that the automotive people are talking about.) There are ways of doing things a car has always done, only better – this is often in the powertrain so covers more efficient engines, improved gear boxes and gear changing, steer or brake by wire, and so on. Then there are the toys: better satellite navigation/GPS systems, entertainment and information centres (location of the nearest petrol station, hotel, pub). Next comes communication between the car and the infrastructure, extending the information so that you can avoid snarled traffic with the data gathered by monitoring the cars directly from their GPS/cell phones.

Then we start to get into the faintly spooky – ultrasonic or radar distance measurement, and linked to this is self-parking. Parallel parking is never easy, and with colour-coded areas where good solid metal bumpers (fenders) used to be, it is now expensive just to back in until you hit the other car. Beeping noises as you get close are better than the clunk of bumper on bumper, but now there are cars in production that will actually take over the parking for you, including, in the latest versions, putting on the brakes.

The same sensors at the front of the car can be used to measure distance when driving and hook into the latest cruise control to keep you at an appropriate distance from the vehicle in front. Similar sensors detect if you are drifting across lanes: today they can beep or vibrate the steering wheel, but they can also steer the vehicle. Now there is another reason to think that you can go back into the RV (motor home) and make coffee.

Radar-based front sensors are being used to feed into head-up displays, to provide improved vision in poor light, fog or rain. Link in some powerful processing and you can get image recognition as well. Is that a moving truck or a wall?

And if you think that is getting a little ahead of the game, how about the implications of autonomous cars? For the past few years, the US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been running an autonomous vehicle competition, and they have moved from the desert to streets with “people.” Take this technology and put it in, say, a sub-compact car, and, instead of having commuter railway stations surrounded by clogged parking lots, you drive to the station and the car takes itself home. Or, even better, it works like an unmanned cab: you phone for a car, it delivers itself and toddles off about its business after dropping you off. It is then waiting when you arrive back in the evening: environmentally a lot better.

And the environment brings us to the whole spectrum of improvements, from those in small, light vehicles to fully electric cars and all points in between. There are several cars on the market that turn the internal combustion engine off when sitting at traffic lights or whatever, and then they come to life when the “go” pedal is pushed. (Some clever electronics involved here.) Then there are hybrids, switching from electric power to internal combustion when needed. The electric power is from plugging in to the domestic mains supply, from regenerative power when braking, from spare power when driving, and even from solar panels. Not difficult to see massive amounts of embedded engineering here.

Capturing kinetic energy, storing it, and then using it to provide added acceleration (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems – KERS) is going to be allowed in Formula 1 (Grand Prix) racing next year. Like in all Formula 1 rules, there are serious limitations: the maximum power stored cannot exceed 60 kilowatts and no more than 400 kilojoules of energy can be reused per lap. While there are some thoughts about using a flywheel, most work appears to be on using either a battery or a supercapacitor for energy. The associated control circuitry will be complex, and already Freescale Semiconductor and McLaren have announced collaboration to develop a system.

Plans for electric Formula 1-type racing are not that far advanced, but there are plans for top end electric motorcycle racing. Next year the Isle of Man TT race, some of the toughest and most exciting motorcycle road racing in the world, is having a race of a single lap (38 miles of hills and 200 corners) for zero emission motorcycles.

Full electric cars are beginning to emerge, and while there are significant limitations, particularly the limited range of batteries compared to petrol tanks, there are several attempts to overcome them. The classic problem is that there are few places to charge, or swap, the batteries of electric cars, so there is little incentive to buy them, which means the market doesn’t exist for charging and battery swapping. An activity called Project Better Place is breaking this vicious circle in Israel, Denmark and Australia by introducing multiple charging/swap centres in parallel with Renault cars with Nissan electric motors. In Berlin, energy company RWE is setting up 500 intelligent charging points for electric powered Daimler Smart Cars. The project is being supported by the German federal government. Did you get the point that the charging points are intelligent? So as well as the electronics in the car and the charging points there is a back office function to make sure that people are billed for the energy they use. Lots more electronics there.

Across the world, different levels of government are looking at ways to reduce perceived pollution and are introducing tax incentives for hybrids or fully electric vehicles through rebates on the purchase price or lower highway usage taxes.

So far, we have been looking at options. Around the globe, governments are mandating compulsory fitting of safety and related features over the next few years. One area is electronic stability control (ESC), particularly for the people carrier/van/SUV class of vehicles, which most Western authorities will be making compulsory. While this avoids accidents, there are also serious efforts to improve the response to accidents. eCall (called Automatic Crash Notification or ACAN in the US) will become a compulsory fitting for all new vehicles receiving type approval (that is – entering the European market for the first time) in Europe in the next five years. This uses a built in cell phone that dials emergency services automatically in the event of a crash and provides GPS co-ordinates of the accident. The exact procedures are still being refined, but in addition to summoning ambulances and other emergency vehicles, one option will be for emergency services to call back and, if there are survivors, gauge the severity of the accident and advise on actions before the emergency services arrive. The time saved in calling the emergency services could be considerable, and when they arrive at the scene, they could have details of the vehicle type(s) involved, including instructions complete with “cut here” diagrams if they need to free trapped people. There is discussion that the eCall system might also have, somewhere, knowledge of the registered driver/owner, such as blood type.

Actually joining the electronic bits and pieces together is producing a whole range of issues. The physical elements, the wiring harness, seems at first glimpse to be the least interesting of all aspects of silicon-based cars, but the guys at Mentor can tell you differently. Almost every car has its own individual harness of cables and connectors: not every model or even every version of a model, but every individual car. Leaving aside the logistics of matching externally sourced harnesses with cars coming down the production line, there is a lot of work in defining what these harnesses should be. Since every time an option is added to a car, the number of possible versions increases by a power of two, it is clearly cost effective to create a new harness for each vehicle. Naively, I assumed that, with buses becoming more important, all you needed to do was route the power around, rather like in a domestic house, and then send signals across a bus. But it doesn’t work like that in real life.

What Mentor has done is to bring the technologies of analysis and synthesis that are commonplace in chip design and increasingly used in PCB design to designing wiring harnesses, which have to work in three dimensions.

Leading on from physical connection is the interface between different elements within the vehicle. Much of the stuff we have already looked at assumes communication between different parts of the automotive system. However, since many of these units have, so far, been designed as application islands, the interfaces are all different. There is a raft of different bus standards, such as CAN, LIN, MOST and FlexRay. Even Ethernet is coming to the car. Trying to bring some resolution to this is the work of the AUTOSAR group. This, like so much in advanced automotive electronics, began in Germany and, to quote the web site “AUTOSAR (AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture) is an open and standardized automotive software architecture, jointly developed by automobile manufacturers, suppliers and tool developers.” We will be looking at the details of AUTOSAR in 2009, but it is progressing remarkably quickly for such a complex idea, and announcements of products are beginning to come thick and fast. Only last week NEC announced an AUTOSAR implementation approach with NEC microcontrollers, software modules from KPIT and development tools from ETAS.

There has been, until now, no equivalent of the 61508 standard specifically for automotive. This is about to change, as the work of ISO 26262 panel (Road Vehicles – Functional Safety) comes closer to fruition. One remarkable feature of this panel is that there is a considerable overlap with the AUTOSAR team, so the two activities are complementary, and an AUTOSAR implementation should be compatible with 26262.

We will be returning to automotive electronics at regular intervals in 2009, partly because it is an important part of the embedded world, but partly because the end product is often so much fun. Cars are great toys, and much of the electronics going in to them is exciting stuff.

Footnote: Just as we were preparing to publish, Nissan announced it was going into partnerships with the State of Oregon and Portland General Electric (PGE). The state will be taking cars from Nissan and PGE will continue the roll-out of charging stations across Portland and Salem. The state Governor is proposing a $5000 (€3995) tax credit for anyone buying a zero-emission vehicle.

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