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Innovation drives auto electronics

Posted: 01 Jun 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Philips Semiconductors? Kurt Sievers?

In the coming years, electronics is destined to play a strategic role in about every aspect of automotive technology and innovation. By the end of this decade, electronic systems will supervise and control such mission-critical functions as braking and steering. In an even shorter time, automobile infotainment systems will become sophisticated and versatile enough to rival in-home entertainment in terms of user experience and will be superior to home systems in ease of use.

As streaming multimedia makes its way out of the home and into the car, consumers' buying decisions will be increasingly based on features delivered by electronic systems and the ICs that power them. So, it should surprise no one that auto-industry pundits predict 90 percent of tomorrow's innovation will be based on electronics.

At the same time, the conventional electronic-system architectures that have slowly evolved are approaching an evolutionary dead end. In the not-too-distant future, extensions of existing standards, engineering practices and architectures will be incapable of satisfying the car's growing appetite for electronic innovation.

The dominant way to distribute control information around the car from one subsystem to another is more than a decade old. The so-called CAN bus has limited capacity for moving data; it also has the electronic equivalent of attention deficit disorder.

At some point, CAN's data bandwidth of 1Mbps will no longer be able to handle all of the communications needed for controlling the car. Streaming audio and video, of course, need orders of magnitude and more bandwidth.

CAN, as conceived, was never intended to make decisions within a predetermined and very short period of time. But information critical to actuating a car's brakes requires exactly that: response in a few milliseconds.

Today's cars handle CAN's lack of "determinism" with dedicated communications links between every actuator and the implementing system. There is no delay because multiple systems are not trying to use the bus at the same time, as occurs in typical data networks.

Obviously, CAN's point-to-point architecture works extremely well. Drivers can have 100 percent confidence that when they apply the brakes, the car stops.

Multiple, independent systems create unnecessary complexity and add significant cost. Today's high-end car has up to 100 ECUs, each with its own MCU and other components. Because each operates pretty much independently and many must be wired back to the driver's control panel the wiring harness is becoming as large as a boa constrictor. But the processing for many functions being done by CAN could be handled by just a few high-performance MPUs.

Engineers agree that the time to integrate multiple functions into fewer ECUs has come: This is all about simplicity. But it requires more open communication channels between actuators and the systems they implement. And that requires that the in-vehicle network be deterministici.e. capable of guaranteeing a response within a specific time period.

The key players may not yet be known with certainty, but one thing is clear: In the next decade, driving a car will be profoundly different from what it is today, shifting from the act of "driving" to the experience of "enjoying."

- Kurt Sievers
VP of Automotive, Philips Semiconductors

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