Silicon-on-Steel: The Shape of Cars

Jan. 28, 1999
Most new cars use at least 15 microcontrollers and some luxury cars use as many as 80

Fred DiVincenzo
Vice President and Director
Transportation Systems Group
Motorola Semiconductor Products Sector
Phoenix, Ariz.

Most new cars use at least 15 microcontrollers and some luxury cars use as many as 80. The electronic controls that contain these components make up as much as 10% of the cost in luxury vehicles and will soon account for almost the same percentages on low and midpriced cars and trucks. And as consumers demand new features for comfort, performance, personalization, and safety, the amount of semiconductor electronics in all types of new vehicles will continue to grow, along with the average cost of those semiconductors. As a mater of fact, electronics have begun to supplant steel as the most critical ingredient in the makeup of modern automobiles.

Five primary areas are expected to drive growth in automotive semiconductors over the next decade. They include: further reducing emissions while improving efficiency; implementing mechatronics, the transition of conventional mechanical systems to microcomputer controls; expanding personalization features, such as navigation and communication systems; increasing convenience and comfort features; and supplying the growing demand for vehicles in emerging countries, despite recent setbacks in Asian markets.

Of those five, personalizing the vehicle represents the greatest potential for increasing the number of semiconductors in autos. Personalization features, which address safety, navigation, and information gathering and display, have a powerful impact on buyers. This makes them important to automakers looking for ways of differentiating and adding value to their products — especially now when many analysts report that the market is seeing shrinking profits, weakening growth, heightened competition, and increasing commoditization of the auto. Integrating advanced electronic systems into cars will take on even greater importance in the future as automakers strive to maintain or increase their share in an aggressive market.

Because electronics traditionally has been the leading technology for solving problems and satisfying consumer needs, automakers are looking for ways to speed the deployment and lower the cost of new semiconductor-based features. And there are some steps auto companies and the semiconductor industry can take to satisfy their business needs while also taking care of consumers. These include: closer cooperation between system developers and semiconductor companies; industry-wide adoption of software standards; and protecting intellectual property by using advances in “gateway” microcontrollers.

OEM and supplier collaboration
Electronics in vehicles are rapidly becoming more and more complex. This is in direct conflict with automakers’ desires to reduce system complexity, design time, and, ultimately, cost. The solution requires a shift in the way systems and semiconductor components are developed — one that brings semiconductor manufacturers into the design process early.

Automakers and third-party OEMs should make chip vendors an integral part of their development teams, bringing them in to develop strategies at the start of the system design process. Early involvement is essential in establishing the most cost-effective way to determine which functions a should be handled by electronics and hardware, and which will be handled by software.

Another aspect of design that greatly influences cycle time is software tools. And there are now design tools that let software and hardware be developed in parallel, significantly reducing design cycles. A chip supplier’s ability to provide a complete and robust set of development tools should be a major criteria for selecting a chip supplier.

Software standardization
Software can shorten design cycles and lower costs due to its tremendous flexibility. It also lets improvements be made at virtually any stage of the design process. Software is even becoming more important than hardware, if recent hiring activities among automotive companies are any indication, and it is possibly the most critical element in resolving future system complexity issues. If companies really want to lower costs and speed up design cycles, software, which is highly proprietary today, must become more standardized.

The standard called OSEK/VDX (Open systems and interfaces for electronics in the motor vehicle/Vehicle Distributed Executive) demonstrates a worldwide effort within the electronics industry to simplify the design process. The industry wants to define open-ended architectures for distributed control systems, including standard software interfaces and real-time operating systems (RTOS). An RTOS is a master control program that provides immediate responses to external inputs and transactions. In the meantime, reusable off-the-shelf components, such as Motorola’s RTEK and OSEK software, have begun to emerge as de facto standards for automotive systems applications.

Protecting intellectual property
One of auto manufacturers’ major concerns is protecting the software and systems they develop — their intellectual property (IP). Automakers need to protect their IP and prevent unauthorized access and tampering with software code. One way to do this is by cutting off access to the data structure of critical control systems through “firewalls” in gateway microcontrollers. This lets vehicle owners add after-market upgrades that interface with the rest of the car’s systems without compromising the automaker’s proprietary designs.

Adapting consumer electronics to the vehicle, including communications, computing, and interactive entertainment devices, has largely been initiated by car buyers. Making these products OEM or aftermarket options requires cooperation between semiconductor and automotive manufacturers for them to be cost effective. If the proper steps are taken, automobile manufacturers can leverage the strengths of their silicon suppliers, working in concert to reduce design cycles and costs, while continuing to add new and more sophisticated functions.

From radios to engine control
The first commercial automotive IC applications were “solid-state” devices used in car radios over 40 years ago. (The term solid state was coined to describe transistors built using the new planar semiconductor processes as opposed to using vacuum tube technology.) Over the next few years, advances in semiconductor fabrication techniques let engineers develop low-cost methods for making silicon rectifiers used in automobile alternators, making the alternator an economical replacement for the less durable generator.

The car radio reached new heights in 1971 when a Motorola FM transceiver was used in the Lunar Rover to provide a voice link between Earth and the Moon, a distance of over 240,000 miles. Tipping the scales just under 2 lb, the receiver was 100 times more sensitive than a standard car radio.

The first complex IC used in cars, the Motorola 6800 microprocessor, was designed into a trip-mileage computer in 1974. When first introduced, the 6800 represented the world’s earliest 8-bit, 5-V-only device that could replace existing computer logic.

The success of these early devices spawned other important changes in automotive electronics. In the mid-70s, engineers developed the industry’s first microcontrollers, such as the 68HC05 (a self-contained application-specific microprocessor that included memory and software code), as well as early electronic control units (ECU) for fuel injection to reduce emissions while increasing fuel efficiency.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

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