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Automotive Electronics: Top 5 Tech Trends of Tomorrow’s Smart Cars

Person using the navigation console in their car

In the United States alone, motor vehicles travel well over four trillion miles each year according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.* To gain a sense of this distance, consider that while it takes light approximately eight minutes to travel from the sun to the Earth, it would take well over eight months for light to cover the distance that U.S. vehicles travel each year. These statistics are less a reflection of the desire to spend more time on the roads and more of a statement of the central role vehicles play in day-to-day life. In that role, vehicular systems are increasingly expected to be safer and provide the same level of personalized assistance and ease of use that motor vehicle drivers and passengers demand from their smartphones and tablets.

Consumer demand and competitive pressure have pushed manufacturers to build greater intelligence into automobiles, trucks and other highway vehicles. For example, the Chevy Volt uses nearly 100 microprocessors running about 10 million lines of code in total, placing the Chevy Volt's software content above that of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the original space shuttle and the current generation of jet fighters. As with that electric vehicle, mainstream automotive design is increasingly relying on more sophisticated electronic systems.

Today, designers can draw on a breadth of increasingly powerful hardware and software technologies to create more sophisticated automotive solutions. Combined within a standards-based framework such as AUTOSAR (AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture), manufacturers can mix and match automotive subsystems to target specific levels of cost, performance and functionality. Indeed, advances in automotive technology literally stretch from bumper to bumper, but the most dramatic advances revolve around five key trends in automotive technology.

Tech Trend #1: Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS)

Based on embedded vision technology, ADAS is designed to reduce the driver's workload during the driving process itself. In this concept, vision systems surround the vehicle, looking to place the vehicle within a protective bubble against driver error, road obstacles, other vehicles and pedestrians. Using their visual processing capabilities, these systems provide recognition and tracking information to onboard safety systems for lane departure warning, collision avoidance, driver drowsiness detection and many more protective features.

Embedded vision systems capable of identification and real-time tracking have traditionally required highly specialized knowledge of image acquisition and processing techniques. Today, a wealth of resources helps simplify development of these complex vision systems. The combination of dedicated vision processors, multicore CPUs and vision software libraries has put sophisticated vision capabilities in the hands of every engineer. In fact, development kits such as Avnet’s Blackfin Embedded Vision Starter Kit have dramatically lowered the barriers to entry into vision-based systems by providing a full complement of hardware, software and test capabilities needed to build these solutions.

Tech Trend #2: Advanced Motor Control

Beyond its primary drive motor, an advanced vehicle is filled with dedicated motor-control systems driving pumps, fans, compressors, rotators, actuators and servomechanisms of all types. In most cases, the desire for maximum efficiency and control has motivated engineers to move beyond traditional scalar control systems to sophisticated digital vector control algorithms capable of delivering full torque with acceleration and deceleration at rates that can be precisely managed. The emergence of sensorless control methods has further opened the door for more cost-effective solutions, providing maximum motor capability for engineers able to harness the power of advanced vector control methods.


Fig. 1: Sophisticated motor control applications no longer require specialized knowledge of motor control algorithms thanks to comprehensive development solutions such as the Zynq-7000 All Programmable SoC / Analog Devices Intelligent Drives Kit.

Sophisticated motor control methods provide great flexibility, but can present designers with significant challenges. In fact, achieving stable operation through all corner cases of a vector control design can demand highly specialized knowledge and often leads to slips in tight development cycles. The emergence of development kits such as the Zynq®-7000 All Programmable SoC / Analog Devices Intelligent Drives Kit has significantly simplified application of these techniques (Fig. 1). The Intelligent Drives Kit combines a full complement of development software, motor control reference designs and hardware, including the latest Analog Devices data converters and the Xilinx Zynq-7000 All Programmable SoC based on ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core processors.


Texas Instruments has further collapsed motor control functionality into single-chip solutions based on its C2000-based Piccolo MCU family. These specialized TI MCUs integrate TI's InstaSPIN motor control software solutions in on-chip ROM, further reducing development time for these complex applications.

More on this topic: Accelerating the Motor Control Revolution Using New MCU and FPGA Solutions

Tech Trend #3: Engine/Energy Management Systems

The desire for longer range and lower fuel costs has elevated the importance of a vehicle's miles-per-gallon ratings in vehicle sales, in addition to motivating a push to more effective digital engine management systems. Besides providing safety-critical supervisory function for batteries in electric and hybrid vehicles, management systems provide a level of energy monitoring, analysis and control needed to optimize fuel or battery energy utilization.

While trends in motor control lie in the dispersal of control systems throughout a vehicle, engine management works to integrate information from the periphery into a central controller. Consequently, these management systems face the challenge of blending real-time sensor measurement data from power train performance with sophisticated models of fuel or energy cell usage to optimize overall operations (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Engine management systems need to process real-time sensor input and set motors and switches to achieve the desired balance of vehicle performance and efficiency. (Source: NXP Semiconductor)

For designers, a broad array of automotive-qualified sensors, data converters and microprocessors provide the essential components for these solutions. Paired with integrated MCUs, devices such as the NXP Semiconductor MC33975 multiplexes up to 22 analog input lines to the MCU's integrated data converters, further simplifying design and reducing cost.

Tech Trend #4: Graphical Interfaces

Automotive equipment manufacturers continue to respond to consumer desire for enhanced information and entertainment systems. Vehicles in a broad range of classes now offer touchscreen display consoles built into the dash, armrest, seatbacks and even rearview mirrors (see New TFT LCD Technology Shapes Infotainment for Cars of the Future). At the heart of these solutions, thin-film-transistor (TFT) LCDs provide the required combination of resolution, contrast and screen size. Using touch features of in-vehicle display, manufacturers are providing vehicle occupants with "smartphone-like" graphical interfaces to the vehicle's infotainment and control system, even promising similar third-party app stores for a broader range of in-vehicle services.

Semiconductor manufacturers have responded to growing use of LCDs with highly integrated support for display management. MCUs with on-chip LCD control simplify design and reduce component count, offering greater reliability and reduced cost for these increasingly essential automotive features.

Tech Trend #5: Vehicle System of Systems in the Internet of Things

Because of the sheer complexity and safety demands associated with transportation, few system applications will achieve the level of processing horsepower and interactive computing capability found in a premium class automobile. Combined with the explosive acceptance of social networking, perhaps no application will provide a greater potential for interconnectivity, linking smart automobiles, trucks and other vehicles into an Internet of Things capable of optimizing vehicle performance and occupant experience beyond the confines of the passenger compartment.

As with each trend noted above, this trend leverages the ability of IC manufacturers to integrate enhanced functionality into more power microprocessors. In this case, the integration of wireless connectivity not only simplifies communications between subsystems within the vehicle but also can serve to link the vehicle with external entities, such as external networks, traffic control systems or even other vehicles. As with the vision of the IoT for home and business, interconnected vehicles and their crowd-sourced data offer untapped potential for services such as predictive maintenance, performance trends, traffic management and, perhaps most important, enhanced safety and emergency response capabilities.

Few areas of engineering share the combination of complexity and safety concerns of automotive electronics design. Because of the tangible benefits offered through advanced automotive electronics, however, manufacturers are rapidly providing development solutions that hide design complexity. In turn, these ready-made solutions are delivering on the promise of enhanced safety, cost and performance available through more advanced ADAS, motor control, engine management, in-vehicle interfaces and extra-vehicle communications.

*Transportation Statistics Annual Report. United States Department of Transportation, n.d. Web. 22 Jan 2015.


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