John Day

News and commentary on automotive EE trends and topics

21 October, 2014

Electrical Systems (ES) engineers at the Toyota Technical Center in Saline, Michigan, spent months engaged in customer research in the course of designing the 2015 Toyota Avalon premium midsize sedan that launched this week. The research included clinics, focus groups, surveys, and visits to dealers.

“A tremendous effort goes into designing a car that meets design goals,” says Avalon chief engineer Randy Stephens. “The (Avalon) powertrain was the same as that in the previous generation, and we had a really competitive powertrain, so what we wanted to do was change everything around it to have this vehicle match our vision.

“Design goals included reducing vehicle mass to make the car more nimble and give it a more powerful feeling, and improving aerodynamics to gain better fuel economy. We clearly wanted to be best-in-class by a wide range for fuel economy and were able to achieve that.”

One way the electronic system designers reduced vehicle mass was by reducing speaker wire gauge and reducing the size of amplifier mounting brackets.

“We were able to reduce the size of speaker wires because of the type of speakers we chose,” explains Charan Lota, manager of Electronic Systems. “We went to a more voltage-driven system from our supplier, JBL Harman/Green Edge, and that allowed for some efficiencies. There are speakers all over the vehicles, so with all the wire routing there was a significant saving in mass.”

“We’re always looking for the best places to put electrical features because that can reduce the number of ECUs you have, which helps the mass,” adds Nick Sitarski, whose responsibilities include development of body electronics. “We also look at trying to reduce power consumption components, which reduces the draw on the alternator and the draw on the engine. It also allows for smaller wire gauge sizes.”

Technology Near the Top
Stephens says technology consistently came up at or near the top of prospective customers’ wish lists. Among many other features, the 2015 Avalon offers a choice of three audio systems, introduces wireless charging, and places a variety of controls at a driver’s fingertips.

Considerable design efforts were focused on capacitive switches. Research was conducted to determine which functions were best controlled by switches versus more conventional knobs. Engineers used the V diagram and PDCA (plan-do-check-act) model to guide the development process.

“With capacitive switches and other accessible features, we were striving for ‘high-tech, low stress’,” says Lota. “Clinics revealed that some functions were better if they weren’t capacitive.”

“We had to be in tune with what customers can perceive in the car without causing them too much stress,” explains Earnée Gilling, who is responsible for leading the cockpit electronics design and development of the Avalon, Venza, and 2016MY Lexus ES.

“Shiny chrome, for example had to be placed carefully to avoid distraction from reflections. Buttons had to be placed based on what the customer expects. There was quite a bit of effort involved in designing the opening animation, which sweeps across the driver’s field of vision. We believe that’s important as a perception of quality – something that the customer doesn’t directly need, but when they see it they understand that the engineers go the extra mile with the details.

“Engineers with expertise in a number of areas all worked together to produce a vehicle that not only addresses the customers’ needs, but excites them, too.

“It’s a very thoughtful process, not unlike a symphony, where all of the pieces have to come together in a harmonious way.

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13 October, 2014

At the Paris Motor Show recently Elektrobit (EB) and Nuance announced that they’ve integrated voice with natural language understanding (NLU) as part of the virtual cockpit in Audi’s TT Roadster.
Audi TT Sportback concept
The virtual cockpit places infotainment as well as traditional dashboard information on a large screen directly in front of the driver. The point of integrating voice and NLU is to allow the driver to speak in a more natural conversational tone. Presuming it works, and I have no reason to think it won’t, it’s a potential step beyond the average vehicle interface.

With the technology, the firms said, drivers can engage in a more natural, conversational dialogue with the car’s infotainment and navigation systems, talking the same way they’d talk to a friend. I’m thinking about the way such a conversation might go and what it would take to build a system able to comprehend and respond appropriately.

But EB and Nuance provided some examples, like “Where is the next gas station on our way?” or “Could you please find the nearest restaurant?” There is still a difference between talking to a computer – or a car, in this case, and thinking out loud. That may come next.

Drivers and passengers can control the system menu, phone, tuner, media and navigation features through everyday speech, without having to stick to defined commands. There may be a difference between everyday speech and the way one might talk to a friend – or not.

EB and Nuance promise “an even more consistent, natural speech dialogue with incredibly accurate speech recognition and text-to-speech that has been optimized for the automotive environment.” That, in turn, has potential to create “a smarter, safer in-car experience that allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road, and hands on the wheel.”
EB integrated the NLU voice technology into the developer ecosystem, facilitating communication with the various applications (navigation, phone, organizer, etc.). e.solutions GmbH, a company jointly owned by EB and Audi, did the application integration work.

Natural language understanding in the Audi TT will be available in German and English (UK) at first, with more languages to follow.

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7 October, 2014

Aftermarket in-dash infotainment system supplier Pioneer Electronics is moving rather aggressively to meet consumer demands for infotainment and smartphone connectivity. After all, it costs far less to upgrade a car’s in-dash system than it does to buy a new vehicle.

Last summer Pioneer launched an iPhone app called AppRadioLIVE to work with the company’s AppRadio in-dash receivers. It’s intended to aggregate content from various sources to provide personalized information without the customer having to open multiple apps.

A couple of months later Pioneer launched ten new receivers, all focused on “smartphone-centric” consumers. Myriad features include Bluetooth dual device connection, Bluetooth pairing via USB, and Bluetooth Music Library Browsing; Android Media Transfer Protocol; simple Pandora station creation, and Siri Eyes Free functionality.

“As more consumers consider the smartphone their primary source for entertainment and information in the car, Pioneer continues to refine our in-dash product offerings for seamless integration with these devices,” said Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing for Pioneer Electronics USA’s Car Electronics Division.

Earlier this month Pioneer introduced an Apple CarPlay firmware update for five of its NEX in-dash multimedia receivers and simultaneously introduced a CarPlay-compatible new generation of AppRadio receivers.

Cardenas said provides a safer way to access iPhone features while driving. He added, “With Pioneer’s implementation, CarPlay can now be integrated into millions of vehicles already on the road.” With new-generation, CarPlay-compatible receivers, consumers with an iPhone 5 or newer can use Siri voice control to make and receive calls, compose and respond to text messages, access Apple Maps, or just listen to music.

Then this week Pioneer announced plans to integrate Abalta’s Weblink into its receivers. Customers will be able to connect their smartphones to Pioneer receivers via USB, then interact via a virtual apps screen. “With Weblink we eliminate the need for specialized cabling between the in-dash unit and the phone and simplify product set up,” said Yutaka Sato, general manager of Pioneer Corporation’s After Market Car Electronics Business Division.

Do you have the in-vehicle smartphone access you want? If so, how is it working for you? If not, how anxious are you to get it?

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29 September, 2014

Shortly after I began to write about automotive electronics, a decade or so ago, I attended the SAE Convergence conference. I had been to many electronics industry events in the course of my career but this was my first in-depth exposure to chips, circuits and software for cars.

The industry has changed dramatically between then and now and I’m looking forward to seeing the latest in Detroit (Cobo Center) October 21-22.

Among the sessions that look especially interesting is an Executive Visionaries Panel at 8am on Wednesday. It was organized by Tim Callard from Chrysler and will be moderated by John McElroy from Blue Sky Productions. The panelists include Alan Amici, Chrysler; James Buczkowski, Ford; Harald Kroeger, Daimler; Wayne Powell, Toyota, and Matthew Schroeder, General Motors. You may recognize some or all of those names.

At 10am on Tuesday, Dr. Steve Underwood, University of Michigan – Dearborn, will present a “Roadmap to Vehicle Automation” that includes findings from an ongoing forecast on connected, automated, and electric vehicles. Can technology spur creative uses of the legacy infrastructure in ways that strengthen communities, increase worker productivity, improve safety, and ensure sustainable mobility in the United States?

Another good session starts at 10am on Wednesday and will focus on the “Future of Technology Delivery” Organized by Anthony Cooprider, Ford, and moderated by Philip Ross, IEEE, the panel will address pervasive development problems and how engineers can be prepared to address them. Panel members include Bret Greenstein, IBM; Stefan Jockusch, Siemens PLM Software; Sharafat Khan, Deloitte Consulting, and Janaki Kumar, SAP America.

At 3:30pm on Wednesday Bill Mattingly, ESG Automotive, will speak on the challenge of automotive electronics in the U.S.A. His presentation will be followed by a panel ready to forecast the next 40 years. Panel members include Hans Adlkofer, Infineon; Nigel J. Francis, Michigan Economic Development Corporation; Partha P. Goswami, General Motors; Norimasa Kishi, Nissan; Monika Minarcin; Marc Rosenmayr, Hella, and James R. Sayer, UMTRI. Scott Craig from Infineon will serve as moderator.

There’s much more, as you might imagine, including exhibits and manifold networking opportunities. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

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24 September, 2014

IESF (Mentor Graphics’ Integrated Electrical Solutions Forum) is scheduled for October 23 at the Marriott Hotel in Munich. Great city. Great event. Visit http://www.mentor.com/events/iesf/ to view an agenda, or to register.

IESF begins with three keynotes, then breaks into four tracks: Electrical System Design & Harnessing; AUTOSAR, Network Design and Integration; ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) Telematics and Infotainment Solutions, and Electronics – Thermal Design and Measurement. Each tracks consists of five separate presentations, many from engineering managers representing automakers and key suppliers.

Networking opportunities include – but are not limited to – morning and afternoon breaks, lunch, and a post-event cocktail reception and prize drawing.

Keynote speakers include:
Klaus Meder, Robert Bosch GmbH President, Automotive Electronics, speaking on “MEMS Sensors for Connected Life.”
Stefan Juraschek, BMW Group Vice President of Research and Development for Electric Powertrain, speaking on “BMW eDrive Architectures for New Electrifying Experiences.”
Joachim Langenwalter, Mentor Graphics Business Development Director, Automotive, speaking on “Connected Engineering.”

Electrical System Design sessions are scheduled to include:
• “Model-Based Physical Synthesis and Verification”
• “Understand Your Design Options Via a Real-Time Matrix”
• “Electrical Analysis as You Design (Not Offline)”
• “Managing Complex Design Changes Across the Flow”
• “Using Digital Continuity to Drive Manufacturing Quality”

AUTOSAR sessions:
• “Speeding-Up ECU Integration Cycle Time”
• “How to Early Build and Validate Your Functional Design on a Real AUTOSAR-Based ECU”
• “Developing According to ISO 26262 for Component Reuse”
• “Selecting Between and Combining Multiple Vehicle Networks”
• “Adopting Ethernet for Gateway Communications in the Vehicle”

ADAS, Telematics and Infotainment sessions:
• “Convergence of ADAS, In-Vehicle Infotainment and Driver Assistance Systems”
• “Improving Driver Safety Through Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and V2X Technology”
• “Fast Development Cycles Through Reference Design on a Heterogeneous SoC Architecture” (Texas Instruments)
• “Using Active Noise Control to Improve Driving Experience and Safety”
• “Designing and Developing Vision-Based ADAS” (CogniVue)

Thermal Design and Measurement sessions:
• “Latest Developments and Future Prospects for Laser Headlamps” (Aurays GmbH)
• “Power Electronics in Automotive”
• “Thermal Simulation as an Integral Part of the Design Process” (Continental Automotive)
• “Thermal Management Simulation for Automotive Lighting Systems”
• “IGBT Power Cycling and Failure Mode Tracking”

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20 September, 2014

The past few weeks have been busy ones for Renesas Electronics, a major supplier of chips for automotive and other applications.

The company introduced the R-Car V2H, its third-generation R-Car system-on-a-chip (SoC) and the first in the series optimized for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS); 40 nm RH850/C1x microcontrollers (MCUs) for hybrid and electric vehicle motor control applications, and 16-bit RL78/F13 and RL78/F14 microcontrollers (MCUs) along with new RL78 development kits and software tools from partners (SimuQuest and IAR Systems).

That all sounds nice, but what does it mean for an engineer responsible for designing an ADAS or a motor control system? Why Renesas as opposed to any other automotive chip supplier addressing the same applications?

I posed the question to Amrit Vivekanand, vice president of Renesas’ Automotive Marketing Unit. He told me the answer begins with the IP (intellectual property) in the chip. The R-Car series, for example, previously focused on infotainment. For the V2H, Renesas replaced the infotainment IP with image processing IP.

But it’s often the case that the high-level specs of one chip appear to be quite similar to the specs of chips from other suppliers. The challenge for chip makers is how best to make all of the technology surrounding the IP work effectively to maximize throughput and minimize power consumption.

And that’s where partners come in. Automotive applications are increasingly complex and, chances are, will only become more so. “Most of the challenge is in the integration, not just making the features work, but making them work together with all of the technology that’s needed to enable the system,” says Vivekanand, speaking specifically of SoCs.

Each chip maker has its own consortium of development partners, so engineers must determine not simply which chip will be most effective, but how effectively each chip is supported for a particular application. It’s not just the part; it’s the team that surrounds it.

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12 September, 2014

The Intelligent Transportation Society (ITS) World Congress in Detroit last week was quite an event, from Mary Barra’s keynote on Sunday evening, during which she announced GM’s entry into vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology, to Bill Ford’s Monday morning look at the future of transportation, to the myriad demos on Belle Isle, and the array of exhibits and panel sessions in Cobo Center.

It was a lot to take in.

My overall impression is that we’re living in very exciting times for the automotive industry. Consider all that’s happened in, say, the last five years and look at how the pace of change is picking up: Navigation/infotainment screens are getting larger. We’re likely to see more head-up displays (HUD). There are many more connectivity choices. Safety features like blind spot detection and adaptive cruise control are increasingly common. Before long every new car will have a rear view camera. Automakers are launching hybrid and all-electric vehicles And V2V and V2I (V2X) is not a matter of if, but when.

Innovation is occurring a step at a time – a feature here, a new model there – but an event like the World Congress puts that innovation in perspective. It’s largely driven by advances in electronics hardware, software, and communications technology. Those advances benefit performance (better fuel economy and lower emissions, the driver/passenger experience (built-in and brought-in), and safety.

V2X demos during the World Congress, as well as exhibits and panel sessions, stressed the potential for much safer driving and the parallel need to make/keep connectivity secure. In that context it’s sad to read about so many vehicle recalls. Sad, but not surprising given the horrendous complexity of cars today. Rigorous testing and adherence to ISO 26262 and other relevant standards is critical. Time will tell which car makers are best able to overcome the obstacles.

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7 September, 2014

When Agero, best known for its roadside assistance services, introduced a smartphone-based telematics system for usage based insurance (UBI), I wondered about the benefit(s).

Agero said its system offered advantages over OBDII hardware solutions for assessing behind-the-wheel behavior, but those advantages weren’t immediately obvious, so I asked Jeff Blecher, Agero’s senior VP of strategy, about them.

He told me that the OBDII hardware puts insurance companies in the hardware/telecom business and suggested that it’s a bit of cost and complexity that the insurance companies don’t need or really want. Also, he said, the hardware only measures speed. In contrast, the smartphone-based telematics app provides all kinds of information on driving performance plus tips for drivers who want to improve their scores and earn lower insurance premiums.

Without some way to measure driver performance – speed, location, distance, time-of-day, abrupt braking, fast lane changes, etc. – the good (safe, careful, etc.) drivers effectively subsidize the not so good. When insurance companies can measure performance (vehicle usage) with precision – and do so with drivers’ privacy in mind – they can offer better drivers lower rates. The privacy issue isn’t quite settled, but as insurance commissioners give telematics technology the go-ahead, it’s likely to catch on quickly. Blecher said Agero’s system is currently undergoing pilot testing.

It won’t work if a driver forgets his/her phone, but Blecher reminded me that the vast majority of smartphone owners have their smartphones with them all the time, and smartphones pair nicely with more and more cars. Saving money on car insurance seems like a decent incentive.

Agero offers two apps: PolicyPal, which tracks driving habits in real-time, and Auto Crash Notification (ACN), which automatically notifies emergency services within moments of an accident occurring.

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29 August, 2014

This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s an observation supported by research: younger people are a lot more interested in automotive connectivity than older people are, and they are even more interested in mobile connectivity – smartphones and the like.

Lochbridge, formerly the Professional Services Division of Compuware, surveyed consumers ranging in age from 18 to 65 to assess their opinions on automotive connectivity, and the survey revealed a generation gap of sorts.

According to the survey “Automotive Connectivity and the Generational Divide,” a majority (53%) of consumers overall think smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology is more advanced than automotive technology.
But the millennial generation – people aged 18 to 35 – want more than just access to apps and entertainment. Eighty percent of respondents younger than 35 say they want cars that know them personally; had a better understanding of their preferences and could predict what they needed and guide them appropriately. They want their cars to know them in much the same way that their smartphones do.

“Millennials are always-on and always-connected,” said Bob Kennedy, Lochbridge Vice President, Automotive. They want access to more apps (60.7% of respondents under 45 versus 25% over 45), and they expect more options (75.8% to 48.7%). “If gaps exist between automotive and mobile technologies, millennials turn to their smartphones for in-vehicle information and application needs.”

Millennials want more while older generations want less. Kennedy describes an “adoption cliff” for automotive connectivity where the receptivity for in-vehicle technology falls sharply as folks grow older. While 61 percent of those under the age of 45 indicated that they want to safely and easily access applications and information while in a vehicle, only 25 percent of those over the age of 45 indicated the same preference.

One thing respondents could all agree on is safety. Sixty seven percent of respondents indicated that they were willing to pay more for in-vehicle technology that enhances their safety.

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25 August, 2014

I knew that the college football season is almost upon us but was unaware until quite recently that it must be acquisition season. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence or, more likely, the end of the calendar year is approaching, but four automotive electronics-related acquisitions in the past couple of weeks (at least five in the past couple of months) seems like a lot.

Infineon is acquiring International Rectifier (IR) for $40 per share in a deal valued at approximately $3 billion.

The firm’s said IR’s expertise in low-power, energy-efficient IGBTs and Intelligent Power Modules, Power MOSFETs and Digital Power Management ICs should blend well with Infineon’s offering in power devices and modules. IR brings expertise in GaN (gallium nitride on silicon) power semiconductors, a technology in which Infineon is already strong.

Sensata is acquiring the Schrader group of companies in a deal valued at $1 billion.

Schrader is huge – estimated 50% market share – in tire pressure monitoring systems. “The acquisition of Schrader extends Sensata’s leadership position in pressure sensing and provides further access to a rapidly growing $2 billion low pressure sensor market where the largest current opportunity is in TPMS,” said Sensata CEO Martha Sullivan. “Additionally, Schrader’s expertise in MEMS sensing, wireless communications and ASIC design will be highly complementary.”

Murata is acquiring Peregrine Semiconductor in a deal valued at more than $465 million.

Murata is a major supplier of RF modules and Peregrine is big in RF front end products for mobile and analog applications. Sounds like good synergy.

NNG acquired nfuzion for undisclosed terms.

Budapest-based NNG is the developer of iGO Navigation software. Nfuzion is an American HMI (human-machine interface) prototyping company. NNG said the acquisition will allow it to broaden its presence in automotive on-board systems, including infotainment and HMI.

And it was only last month that Mentor Graphics acquired XS Embedded GmbH (XSe), a creator of automotive system architectures and hardware reference platforms. “By combining Mentor’s Android, hypervisor, security, AUTOSAR & Nucleus solutions with XSe automotive-ready solutions, we are able to address the entire vehicle software infrastructure requirements of the most sophisticated vehicles in design today,” said XSe managing director Rainer Oder.

Who’s next?

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