Companies explore ethernet’s potential in vehicle communications

  • 18-Jul-2011 09:00 EDT
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Freescale hopes that the ethernet port on its new microcontroller will help make surround camera systems a mainstream technology.


The ethernet networking technology that dominates office and home environments is beginning to gain a foothold in automotive applications. Freescale Semiconductor recently unveiled a camera-based concept that relies on the ubiquitous network, and a number of other companies are in various stages of research and deployment.

Freescale extended its Qorivva 32-bit microcontroller line with a device that can be used in surround-camera parking assist systems. The company said the chips can help extend these camera-based systems from luxury cars to a broad range of vehicles. A mainstay in Freescale’s strategy is to transmit high-resolution compressed video data over fast ethernet to trim costs.

“Now, camera connections are costly because they use low-voltage differential system cables, which can cost $5 to $10 per camera,” said Allan McAuslin, Freescale’s Safety and Chassis Microcontroller Product Manager. “Engineers can put this 64-pin chip next to the camera to acquire data, compare it, and transmit it over twisted pair cable that costs pennies rather than dollars.”

That’s only one of the recent automotive advances for the networking technology. In June, Renesas Electronics included an ethernet link on six V850-based S-series microcontrollers aimed at vehicle infotainment systems and networking.

At the same time, Renesas and two other automotive firms joined the AVnu Alliance, an industry forum that’s developing and promoting audio/video bridging (AVB) standards around the IEEE 802.1 standard family that includes ethernet. Hyundai and Texas Instruments also joined the group, which hopes to see the technology move into the infotainment space.

BMW has also announced plans to implement ethernet. Proponents note that it meshes well with the many consumer products now being carried into the car and with some aspects of telematics such as Internet connectivity. Engineers like its high performance.

“The benefits of ethernet are its high bandwidth, 100 Mbits/second, and its high payload capabilities. It can carry up to 10 times the amount of useful data carried by CAN or FlexRay,” McAuslin said.

Though projections for ethernet are still limited, observers note that the network has some potential to take on a fairly substantial role in vehicle communications. A couple decades ago, manufacturing personnel discounted the possibility that ethernet could work in harsh industrial environments, but today it’s a de facto standard in most new installations.

A similar expansion could be in store for automakers over the long term. Freescale, which works closely with BMW on networking technologies, is already mulling more potential applications.

“There’s an opportunity to compress radar transmissions and transmit data over ethernet,” McAuslin said. “You can also time stamp audio data and send it to an amplifier in the trunk.”

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