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Chip designers focus on safety devices for cars

There are too many people on the road, and no one is paying attention. So computers are taking over. Photos: Steering into the future

SAN FRANCISCO--In the future, you may have to get permission from your car to change lanes.

Although in-car navigation systems and entertainment devices have become the most visible signs of technology's intrusion into the automobile, new types of safety features will constitute one of the larger markets for chipmakers toiling in the car market, said engineers at the International Solid State Circuits Conference, or ISSCC, here this week.

"We expect the highest growth in the safety and infotainment categories," said Masayuki Hattori, a researcher with the integrated circuits division of Toyota.

Among the technologies being looked at for the intermediate future are radar-and-camera systems that warn drivers of objects in their blind spot or ahead on the road. For instance, Hattori showed off a concept called Night View in which a near infrared camera captures images of people, animals or objects in the road beyond what can be seen with headlights. NEC, meanwhile, provided details on sensor systems that give visual information to drivers.

As time goes on, electronics will increasingly take over more of the driving functions and even control traffic flow.

"You will want to go to the next lane, and you will be prevented from doing so. I wonder what our reaction will be," said Herman Casier, a researcher from Belgium's AMI Semiconductor. By 2010, "the driving skills that we all have should be less useful," he speculated, while cars will drive themselves by 2040.

The push toward safety, of course, comes from the still large number of traffic accidents. In Western Europe alone, approximately 40,000 people die and 1.6 million get injured in traffic accidents annually, said Patrick Leteinturier at Infineon Technologies.

Though the number of cars on the road in North America and Europe is relatively flat, it is growing in China and India.

"We really have to think about how electronics can reduce the number of deaths and injuries," Leteinturier said.

The value and number of chips for cars is growing faster than the overall auto market, speakers said. Roughly 58 million new cars were produced in 2003. That number will grow to 66 million by 2008, a slow 3 percent annual gain, on average.

By contrast, the auto chip market will grow at about 6.5 percent a year. The value of the chips inserted into the average car will grow from $200 now to $300 by 2009, Leteinturier said. (The cost of all the electronics systems, however, will be much higher.) Braking systems, which have already partly gone electronic, will become completely electronic within the next five years.

Improving fuel consumption will be another theme. Hattori reiterated Toyota's stated goal of shipping 300,000 hybrid vehicles this year. The technology that has allowed Toyota to create gas and electric hybrids will also enable hybrids combining fuel cells and more traditional motors.

Hybrids are also zippy, he added.

"In conventional cars, when we needed acceleration performance, fuel performance got worse," Hattori said. "Hybrid systems can achieve the breakthrough and provide acceleration performance and fuel efficiency."