Viewpoint: Enabling the fully networked car

  • 13-May-2008 10:40 EDT
Freescale Semiconductor’s Denis Griot says that three key “mega trends”—environmental responsibility, improved safety, and constant connectivity—are having an enormous impact on the global electronics market and, in particular, the automotive industry.

Mobile computing is a part of everyday life. Laptop computers, smart phones, gaming systems, and MP3 players are all meshed together by sophisticated wireless and networking technology. The automobile is now entering the “always-connected” world, rapidly becoming the ultimate mobile computing platform.

The demand for in-vehicle computing and networking technology will continue to increase in response to market requirements and driver preferences. As this technology proliferates, vehicles will continue to become more intelligent and self-aware, with advanced communications systems and autonomous safety features designed to protect both passengers and those around the vehicle.

Three key “mega trends”—environmental responsibility, improved safety, and constant connectivity—are having an enormous impact on the global electronics market and, in particular, the automotive industry. These three trends are interwoven, and each effort to address one trend complements the others. For example, in 1996 the typical vehicle had six electronic control units (ECUs). In 2008, a high-end vehicle can contain more than 70 ECUs tied to dozens of sensor nodes and interconnected by as many as five different networking protocols. This dramatic increase in automotive silicon content has been driven by each of the three trends.

Enabling the fully networked car and its connected systems starts with silicon. Microcontroller units (MCUs) provide the brains for individual ECUs as well as for the connecting networks. As systems integrate and add intelligence, performance demands will increase. The challenge is to produce high-performance MCUs that are powerful and flexible enough to meet emerging automotive design requirements at cost-effective price points the market can support.

As system sophistication continues to rise, the current debate within the industry is whether to deploy more processors throughout the vehicle to handle this increased demand or to employ more centralized intelligence to gather and diagnose data from sensing units throughout the vehicle. We believe the trend will be toward more centralized data fusion units requiring higher-performance processing capabilities. Serving the growing complexity of such automotive systems requires a comprehensive development ecosystem that includes communication standards, partnerships, and joint design labs.

Freescale Semiconductor has formed a joint development partnership with STMicroelectronics to specifically address the need for more powerful automotive control systems. Freescale and STMicro launched the collaboration to strengthen Power Architecture technology as the dominant automotive 32-bit architecture, and our joint efforts offer distinct advantages. Shared resources permit faster new-product development to meet the growing demand for high-performance solutions. In addition, by providing the same MCU products from two independent suppliers, automotive customers will have a dual-source of supply like no other in the industry.

Managing the increasing vehicle complexity requires reliable, high-speed networking that adheres to industry-standard communication protocols. We believe that FlexRay technology delivers the bandwidth that will be required by advanced safety applications currently being developed and those yet to reach the drawing board. At 10 Mb/s, FlexRay can deliver a 20 times improvement in raw data rates over high-speed CAN (controller area network) applications. Using a Freescale FlexRay controller in the adaptive-suspension system for the X5 sport-utility vehicle, BMW became the first automaker to employ FlexRay in a commercially available vehicle.

FlexRay technology can also be used as an automotive backbone, connecting to CAN-driven applications and those using more specialized protocols such as LIN (local interconnect network) and MOST (media-oriented system transport). Using FlexRay in this way takes advantage of the protocol’s fault-tolerant architecture for high-speed delivery and control for virtually every connected application in the vehicle.

Looking into the future, the fully networked car will reach well beyond its immediate environment. Telematics between vehicles will communicate road conditions and traffic-flow status. Integrated global positioning systems will be able to suggest alternative, faster routes from the information fed from other vehicles and traffic-control services in the transportation infrastructure. The fully networked car offers the promise of a more efficient and environmentally friendly vehicle that is safer and more connected to the world around us.

Denis Griot, Senior Vice President and Chairman, Europe, Middle East & Africa Region, Freescale Semiconductor, wrote this article for Automotive Engineering.

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