Powertrain microcontroller computing power rises as power consumption declines

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The Renesas RL78 line is designed to reduce size and power consumption for clusters.


Tighter fuel-economy regulations and the shift to electrified powertrains are forcing microcontroller manufacturers to increase both computing power and memory capacity while also focusing on reducing power consumption. Renesas Electronics Corp. is focusing on both goals with two new microcontroller lines.

At the Renesas Developers Conference in October, automakers and Tier 1 suppliers described ways that new regulations are forcing companies to use more computing power to improve fuel economy. Engine designers faced with nearly doubling numbers to 54.5 mpg by 2025 are breaking every cycle into multiple steps to eke out improvements.

“It takes a lot more effort to improve mileage now. We’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit; now we’re moving up the cost curve,” said Mike Grimes, one of General Motors’ Technical Fellows. “We used to design for one operating state, now we have to take a different approach for cold states and warm states.”

As the push to improve internal-combustion engines advances, engineers are also attempting to make electrified powertrains more efficient. A big aspect of that drive is to reduce power consumption of every electronic module.

While they endeavor to trim power loads and extend fuel economy, engineers are also striving to reduce costs. Pricing is a major factor that has curtailed electrified vehicle sales, and cost cutting will also be a major factor for gasoline and diesel vehicles that use more sophisticated electronics and new materials to increase fuel economy.

One way to trim expenses is to reduce design costs. One approach is to use a single low-power module in all vehicle types instead of designing separate systems for internal-combustion engine (ICE) and electric versions.

“A module that draws 80 milliamps all the time is not a big deal for a vehicle with an internal-combustion engine, but it’s a big factor when you’re talking about an electric vehicle,” said Bob Adams, Hardware Team Leader at Continental Automotive.

Renesas, which IHS iSuppli ranks as the largest automotive microcontroller supplier with a 42% market share, is addressing these trends with two new lines. The 32-bit RH850 aims at high-performance applications, providing speeds up to 120 MHz and flash capacities of up to 8 MB.

The line, fabricated using a 40-nm process, was designed to trim power consumption compared to other high-performance devices. It has more than 50 versions aimed at various applications ranging from engine control to body and chassis.

A second line, the RL78, was designed for small size and low power consumption. The 16-bit chips are aimed at clusters and other applications including those on two-wheeled vehicles. The line includes some graphics capabilities as well as flash for storing data such as odometer readings.

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