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Electronics overload may limit option choices

Automotive News reports on how cabin tech is putting more strain on car battery systems.

Automotive News

The proliferation of electronic content in cars and trucks is fast reaching a point where consumers may be unable to get all the options they desire when buying a new vehicle.

As electronic content grows, so does the amount of electric power required. That demand may bump up against battery capacity.

"I can see a future where you're going to not be able to get some options on some vehicles because they just draw too much power," says Robert Klosterboer, senior vice president of ON Semiconductor Corp. "You are going to have to make a decision: Do I want another 30 minutes of drive time, or do I want a high-end stereo?"

So Klosterboer understands why automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp. want to reduce the number of electronic control units in vehicles. Those ECUs control electronics for the power train, safety devices, body, multimedia and anything else electronic.

25 to 70 units per vehicle

As many as 70 control units can be found on luxury vehicles today. Most General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC vehicles have about 25 to 35 ECUs.

Electronic control units and microcontrollers--the brains of the units--manage engines, transmissions, doors, seats, and climate and entertainment systems.

"I think that up until now we've pretty much just said, 'Let's put everything on the vehicle that we can, and we'll let consumers decide what they want,'" Klosterboer says. "We're going to get to a point where the auto manufacturers have to decide what options and what electronics they can put on some vehicle models and still hit their carbon footprint requirements."

During a panel discussion at October's Convergence 2008 conference on automotive electronics, executives from five automakers acknowledged that they must rein in the proliferation of electronic control units in the vehicle.

In 2008, worldwide sales of automotive microcontroller units are on pace to total $5.3 billion, according to Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company in Stamford, Conn.

Because many of the technologies used in "green" vehicles such as hybrids are managed through microcontrollers, Gartner expects the market to top $6.3 billion in 2012. Half of that growth will be driven by new green vehicles and fuel-efficiency improvements in traditional vehicles, Gartner says.

New vehicle features also will propel the growth, says Jim Trent, automotive group vice president at NEC Electronics America Inc.

Features such as antilock brakes, stability control and even backup warning systems--all requiring microcontrollers--are commonplace today, he says.

"It's really inside the car where a lot of the differentiation is," Trent says. "Everybody wants new creature comforts inside the car, so that's where we're seeing a lot of potential growth in semiconductors."

Crowning achievement

But the sky is not the limit. Toyota already recognizes that it must, and can, reduce the number of electronic control units and microcontrollers that it packs in a vehicle.

In the spring of 2006, Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe set a goal of slashing the number of ECUs in Toyota cars to four from about 60 at the time. The goal was part of a broad effort to reduce the electronic complexity of Toyota cars, cut costs and quicken new-vehicle development.

This year, Toyota met that goal--sort of.

In February, the company launched a redesigned Toyota Crown luxury sedan in Japan with only four main electronic control units overseeing power train, safety, multimedia and vehicle body control.

Sounds good. But those four oversee numerous smaller electronic control units. Toyota boasts that it reduced the number of units used for vehicle body control to one-fourth the total previously used, but the company declined to say how many the new Crown has.

In addition, systems with their own, dedicated units include electric power steering, variable gear-ratio steering, engine and brakes.

Although they have 25 to 35 microcontrollers on most of their products today, the Detroit 3 expect that number will come down as they integrate functions and features with more powerful controllers.

"The real power, as we all know, is through integration," says Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering. "We improve cost, but we also improve quality, performance and value for customers. So we will continue to drive integration of functions and features, which will probably cause a leveling off of the number" of electronic control units.

'We work hard'

BMW AG has up to 70 ECUs in its high-end cars. That's "probably the maximum you can reach for in high-end cars," says Gunter Reichart, BMW vice president of driver assistance, body electronics and electrical networks.

BMW has 40 to 50 ECUs in its average-equipped cars, he says.

"We work hard toward reducing the number of ECUs," Reichart says. "In one of the next models to come, we have reduced in the body domain from four ECUs into two. So we have started a number of high-integration projects."

While the trend toward fewer electronic control units ultimately may prevail, the manufacturers of these controllers are constantly working on units for new applications.

Take Freescale Semiconductor Inc., the largest manufacturer of automotive microcontrollers. Ray Cornyn, director of global automotive products in Freescale's microcontroller solutions group, expects continued growth in safety-related features, including image recognition.

"The camera, normally just behind the mirror, is scanning the lanes in the road looking for road signs," Cornyn says. "It basically reads all the road signs for you. On your dashboard, you can call up the last speed sign you passed.

"It's quite advanced object recognition software. You need fairly powerful processors to do it."

(Source: Automotive News)