Automotive

Let’s talk about the future of automotive

18th May 2020
Joe Bush

There are few industrial markets undergoing a more rapid change and experiencing the impact of technological innovation, than the automotive sector. Whether it be ADAS, electric vehicles, V2V and V2X, power train, or battery management, applications for electronics technology within the humble car know no bounds. A team of experts from Texas Instruments’ automotive division recently assembled to discuss the latest trends in the market and to run an eye over the future of automotive.

When you consider the pace of acceleration in technology over the last century, I always wonder what some of the early pioneers would make of it today. Would Louis Pasteur look aghast at keyhole surgery? What would Alan Turing make of the processing power of the modern-day laptop? And what would Karl Benz make of today’s automobiles? His 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, which is widely regarded as the first automobile, used the Benz 954cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine and was capable of 670W of power – equating to an eye watering 0.9bhp.

A far cry from what rolls off today’s production lines, and a key part of that has been the growth in electronics technology within the car. Indeed, it is predicated that by 2030, 50% of the total cost of a car’s production will be its electronics. 

Texas Instruments Automotive roundtable

From left to right: Matt Watson, General Manager for C2000 Microcontrollers; Mattias Lange, General Manager Connectivity at Texas Instruments; Karl-Heinz Steinmetz, General Manager for Worldwide Automotive Powertrain; Sameer Wasson, Vice President Processors

EVs

There are many automotive sectors that have emerged with the potential for ingenuity, but few have the potential of electric vehicles when it comes to changing our world for the better. Clearly the major issue for electric vehicles is, and has always been, range, and from the perspective of the power train, new technologies like SiC and GaN are playing a vitally important role.

“The issue around doing a long journey on a single charge is both the challenge and the opportunity that we have in the industry right now, as we move towards electrification,” said Matt Watson, General Manager for C2000 Microcontrollers at Texas Instruments.

He added that there are a number of facets that consumers are currently wrestling with in regard to this. Firstly, is the ability to drive further on a single charge; another is the charging experience itself (making that faster and more commensurate with a combustion engine). And a third would be improved vehicle dynamics, a possible by-product of the former two.

Crucial to driving further on a single charge is battery weight, which is something that can’t really be worked around, as Watson explained: “Working with our customers we are investigating ways to reduce weight and improve efficiency with all the other components that feed that battery. There are technologies on the back end that allow for higher efficiency and smaller size, (thus improving power density), and it’s here that SiC and GaN come to the fore.”

Reducing size in turn reduces weight, which can mean smaller heat sinks; reduced cooling technology (meaning a possible switch from liquid cooling to air cooling); the elimination of fans; and a reduction in the number of magnets - all of which help with reducing weight.

Another piece of the weight jigsaw that’s being investigated is the integration of different functions into fewer enclosures. A car’s enclosures are the heaviest weight bearing piece of the electromagnetic components. “There’s lots of different architectures being looked at,” Watson added. “These technologies on the back end, from switches moving from CMOS to wide bandgap for example, are certainly a key driver that we’re excited about. The name of the game is to enable a higher switching frequency. That’s what enables the size reduction, and so controllers that can keep pace with that higher switching frequency and higher throughput help to enable this.”

When it comes to EV charging, the same mechanics and electronics are at work. The end-goal is increasing energy efficiency, improving the time to charge, and reducing losses. And there are various architectures that OEMs are looking at to solve those challenges.

Watson continued: “The HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) powertrain is there to improve vehicle efficiency so that we can travel farther using less energy. And there are a variety of technologies that will enable that. We’re barely skimming the surface right now.”

Indeed, the current coronavirus crisis could ultimately result in significant growth for EVs. Transport contributes 23% of global carbon emissions, and driving is by far the largest element of that, contributing 72% of transport emissions. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak China, the country with the first reported case of the disease, experienced a 25% drop in CO2 emissions.

Therefore, as the environment benefits from what essentially amounts to a human hibernation, there will be an inevitable call for that to be maintained once the crisis has abated. This may see significant growth in electric vehicles, which could be energised when we do emerge from the current situation. Purchasing decisions are likely to have far more emphasis around environmental concerns - which will be good news for the EV industry.

48V

All that being said, the demands of electric vehicles, driving higher efficiency, and all the new sub-systems that have to be powered from the battery, is pushing the limits of traditional 12V systems.

Karl-Heinz Steinmetz, Texas Instruments’ General Manager for Worldwide Automotive Powertrain, picks up the story: “12V has been the standard for the last five decades or so, and it’s getting to the stage where it is maxed out.”

As discussed a primary driver for the automotive sector today is around increasing overall efficiency - whether this is in the standard combustion engine, (which is still of course important); going to a hybrid (which is where we enter the 48V arena), or a fully electric car.

Steinmetz added: “On the 48V side, we’re talking about power levels from 15kW-30kW, and in the latest developments we’re even getting 40-50kW of electrical power supplied by the 48V rail (we would only get about 3kW of maximum power from 12V).”

This dramatic increase in capability means benefits can be realised in elements such as the starter generator, dependent on the physical position of the electric motors, which allows you to add torque, while at the same time, enabling capabilities such as sailing or coasting - which means you can shut down the combustion engine while driving, thus reducing emissions.

Additional applications of 48V includes electric turbochargers, cooling fans or heating systems. Steinmetz added: “For example, if you’re heating your car on a cold winter day, via infrared heating seat panels, there are typically five panels per average passenger car, each using 500W of power. So, you’ve already eaten up the capabilities of a 12V system.

“In battery electric vehicles there are also power loads which you wouldn’t want to run from a high voltage but are too power hungry to be powered from a 12V system. One example would be automated driving with ASIL level four and five. Here we need redundant and independent automated driving computers. Each is expected to consume around 2kW of electric power. So, again, this cannot be done from 12V.”

Again, this is where we find 48V coming to fore. 48V is enabling car manufacturers to meet the short-term goals (i.e. the worldwide emission standards), while at the same time, realising all the additional comfort, as well as mandatory, functions in the car.

Steinmetz added that 48V is an obvious choice to bridge the gap between the combustion engine and HEVs for the foreseeable future as it offers a more dynamic power choice. 48V is clearly for hybrid and will bridge the gap as well as enlarge the lifetime of existing platforms via 48V electrification. However, at the same time, it is a long-term investment to establish 48V in battery electric vehicles and plugin hybrids.

He added: “Just to give you an idea on why the electrical efficiency is that important; think about a 100kW traction inverter - if we increase the efficiency just by 0.5%, (500W), that is equal to around 50km of additional mileage from a single charge. Every efficiency gain matters and looking at the market, it is now a direct purchase trigger for the end customer.”

How wireless connectivity is impacting 48V

Traditionally, when we talk about wireless connectivity inside of the car, we think about infotainment or telematics etc, but those types of systems are now quite established, and people know what to expect.

Mattias Lange, General Manager Connectivity at Texas Instruments, commented: “We’re seeing a lot of new types of use cases of wireless connectivity in the car. Right now, there are two areas that are really interesting. One of them is remote car access (using things like a phone as a key), which greatly integrates the personalisation and how we interact with the car.

“The other area is applications like wireless battery management systems (BMS). In the car today, the individual cells in the battery pack are connected over cables. And, the connections in those cables tend to break, and the cables are heavy.”

We’ve discussed previously about how we can reduce the weight of the car with various technologies, while at the same time increasing the reliability and the robustness of these types of functionalities.

Therefore, Lange added that the requirement from the market is to replace those cables and connect these cells individually and wirelessly. ”For the past couple of years, we’ve developed a technology where you actually can do this using 2.4GHz technology with a special protocol that gives you both the reliability that you need, and the right level of safety. And in that way you can actually reduce the overall cost and weight of the system, as well as increasing reliability.”

Safety

A recurring theme throughout is that the technology being worked on by TI tends to cater towards trying to mainstream technology which already exists. Sameer Wasson, the company’s Vice President Processors, picked up on the issue of safety (integral in the future of the automotive market), and how the company is bringing disparate functions of the car together to make them work as one system.

He added: “We focus on making sure we have sensing technology, whether it is vision sensing technology with a camera, or an RF sensing technology with a radar, and ask how does that work to make the car aware of its surroundings, and make the driver experience more integrated?”

He commented that while there are many companies trying to do this at autonomy levels 1-5, it’s TI that are focussing on making it more mainstream. “We’re trying to create technology which caters to a wider set or to the entire car line, make it more affordable, and bring it to cars which are more practical on the road rather than being a very elite, small segment of the car sector,” Wasson added.

It might be easy to put a supercomputer in a car and let it have enough horsepower to do every computation possible, however, it is not a practical solution for the vast majority of mainstream vehicles. “At TI we have years of automotive system learning experience,” he continued. “This includes translating those performance requirements into an automotive system, while making sure the safety, security, the long lifecycles of these cars is taken care of, ensuring the high level of quality and reliability which is expected, and then making sure that these systems work together from the point of view of providing a good holistic user experience. This is probably the biggest opportunity I see and that’s what ties all of our automotive strategy together.”

Safety in a car is nothing new of course. Take the seat belt for example. It was first available as an optional extra as early as the 1940s, became law less than 20 years later, and is the simplest form of car safety that there is. However, in the modern world and with the advent of greater technology, safety is starting to have real influence in the consumer’s buying decision.

Wasson added: “Five to ten years ago, when you purchased a car, you would take notice of your car’s dashboard, and what your wheel rims looked like, etc. These are still customer care abouts today, but now consumers are starting to ask questions like; will this car stop by itself? Will it give me blind spot detection? Will it do lane change assist? Will it help me in traffic jams?”

This trend is being reflected at the OEMs who are starting to control their R&D spend to ensure that these requirements are something which they can differentiate on. So, if you buy from OEM A, versus OEM B, you will see the same safety features, but different user experiences built around them.

A statistic from Consumer Reports in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that in 2017, there were 50% fewer front to rear crashes in vehicles equipped with forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking technology compared to those without it. And although 50% is a substantial figure, as we see OEMs start to put more of this technology into their vehicles, it would be encouraging to see the number of accidents decrease still further.

If you look at the level of ADAS driver safety features in cars available today, the amount which have any level of active safety is still fairly low. There are 100 million vehicles sold each year, so integrated safety technology has still only punctuated a small segment of the market. So there are some amazing opportunities when it comes to bringing this technology more mainstream.

“We launched our Jacinto 7 family earlier this year,” Wasson continued, “focusing specifically on making safety mainstream. We have our imaging technologies, our camera technologies, along with our millimetre wave radar, where we’re trying to tie these systems together and make it available for tier ones and OEMs to be able to bring this technology to the mainstream.

“It’s an evolution, and obviously, nothing evolves in isolation. We still believe level one to level three is where the majority of the evolution and the majority of the focus is going to be. There will be specific level five evolutions as well, and our technology does cater to that as it scales up. But the 80% part of the market is where we’re trying to optimise as that’s where the biggest opportunity lies.”

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