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The continuing “electrification” of cars

As I’ve said many times before, and will no doubt say many times again, I’m a car guy and a tech guy. And when car stuff and tech stuff come together, well, I’m really in my element. And I was definitely in my element when I came across a recent article (Automotive electronics revolution requires faster, smarter interfaces) on embedded.com. They had me when I saw this illustration:

As someone old enough to remember roll-down windows, the “electrification” of the automobile never ceases to amaze me. What has happened over time is not just the replacement of the mechanical with the electronic, but an increase in functionality as well. Some of the additional functionality – like backseat videos to keep the kids entertained on long trips – doesn’t make cars any safer, but much of it does. Blind spot detection. Lane departure warning. Automatic emergency braking. Thanks to electronics, there are so many improvements that make driving safer. Others just make it easier. Think automated parallel parking.

As the article authors (Raj Kumar and Edo Cohen) point out, while all the new features that make up connected in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems, advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), and autonomous driving systems (ADS) are becoming more prevalent – and really do make cars safer and improve the driver experience, “they also are creating new requirements that are increasing complexity and making product development more expensive and time-consuming.” They argue that this calls for “new approaches to in-car connectivity, especially the physical-layer interfaces that link sensors and displays to their associated electronic control units (ECUs).”

The new electronic features also require more, larger, and higher-resolution displays. Digital cockpits with electronic gauge clusters, head-up displays and virtual mirrors using cameras outside the vehicle are already common. Central stack, passenger-side and rear-seat displays are undergoing continuous improvement to take advantage of growing cloud-based sources of entertainment, navigation and local information.

The networks needed to support so many more components, connected to so many more processors, are getting more and more complex. If every sensor, every display unit, is directly wired to an ECU of its own, this translates into more weight and higher manufacturing costs for producing the wiring harness. At the same time, the images being captured are becoming higher resolution and have higher frame rates. This means more bandwidth required – and the challenge of adding bandwidth without adding wiring.

Then designers need to factor in compliance with emerging industry requirements:

Connections between onboard sensors and ECUs need to be protected under all conditions, throughout the vehicle’s life, to prevent faulty or missing data from causing driver or vehicle errors. The same is true of links from ECUs to displays used in applications such as video feeds from backup and parking assistance cameras.

Kumar and Cohen are both members of MIPI Alliance. (This is an organization that develops interface specs for products that involve mobile/connectivity.) They devote much of their article to discussing the merits of taking “a standardized approach to sensor and display connectivity,” which, they note, can speed up development of new features while decreasing costs by eliminating costs associated with integrating proprietary technology. MIPI Alliance has a specific set of standards for the automotive world. It’s called the MIPI Automotive SerDes Solutions (MASS), and it’s centered on a framework (A-PHY – “the first standardized asymmetric long-reach SerDes physical-layer interface”), which “offers increasing performance and flexibility, along with the reliability and resiliency required for safety-critical applications.”

We may still be a way away from fully autonomous vehicles, but the complexity level of the technology included in our cars is going to continue to increase by leaps and bounds. I’m betting that the next edition of the illustration of sensors in cars will show even more features. I’m all for standards that will make it easier to add new automotive components – even the ones I’m not all that interested in. Onward with the “electrification” of the automobile!