The number of onboard components keeps multiplying.

"I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out" is a famous line from comedian George Carlin. In a similar vein, many people could easily say, "I opened the hood of my car and an iPod and a Palm Pilot popped out."

Today's vehicles contain an unprecedented amount of electronics, which creates numerous engineering challenges. A medium-sized car has approximately 5,000 passive electronic components on board. Luxury vehicles contain more than twice as many components, and the statistics keep multiplying. In fact, by the end of this decade, electronic systems will represent 35 percent of a vehicle's average value.

Electronic components are used for everything from engine management to infotainment to safety. New applications continually pop up, creating additional headaches for engineers. Hybrid powertrains, active safety systems, advanced navigation systems and x-by-wire controls are expected to put additional drain and strain on automotive electrical systems and electronic architectures in the future.

That's not good news for warranty costs, which keep skyrocketing. In 2004, the U.S. auto industry spent $11.5 billion on warranty claims. Unfortunately, many defects can be directly or indirectly traced to electronic components. As vehicles rely more heavily on computers and electronics, they become increasingly complex.

"There is a direct correlation between the number of electronic functions and the number of defects per vehicle," claims Franz Fehrenbach, chairman of the board of management at Robert Bosch GmbH (Stuttgart, Germany). "If the value of electronics content per vehicle doubles in the next five to 10 years as predicted, it isn't hard to imagine what that means for the number of defects if this trend line holds true."

"Approximately 30 percent of all warranty issues today are software and silicon-related," adds Robert LaGuerra, senior automotive industry analyst at ABI Research (Oyster Bay, NY). "Processors are proliferating in vehicles."

That simply wasn't the case a decade ago. For instance, in 1993, there were 221 recalls involving 8,408,950 vehicles in the United States. By 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (Washington, DC) claims that those statistics rose to 528 recalls involving 19,098,101 vehicles.

"The levels of complexity have skyrocketed today vs. 10 years ago, as have software requirements, due to the dominant strategy of ‘add a feature, add a box' under which each new system uses its own electronic control unit (ECU) with its own software, instead of integrating these into a few dominant systems," says Lance Ealey, automotive industry analyst at the Freedonia Group Inc. (Cleveland).

Over the last decade, "processor power has more than doubled and software complexity has increased 5 to 10 fold due to emission requirements and combustion improvements for powertrain controllers," notes Mike Gauthier, head of corporate technology at Siemens VDO Automotive Corp. (Auburn Hills, MI). He also points to "increased use of in-vehicle entertainment systems, such as DVD players and satellite radios, and replacement or enhancement of mechanical systems by electrical ones in chassis and safety systems."

In 1995, the average North American-built light vehicle contained $410 worth of ECUs. Today, that value has climbed to $680, according to Strategy Analytics (Boston), a market research firm. "We expect it to keep on rising, with the potential to reach $860 by 2015," claims Ian Riches, director of the company's automotive electronics service.

Vehicles today incorporate smarter electronics, sophisticated power management, intelligent sensors and advanced human-machine interfaces. Electronics-intensive features that were considered groundbreaking not long ago, such as anti-lock brakes, air bags and remote keyless entry, are now offered as standard equipment.

"High performance 32-bit microcomputers with built-in memory, vehicle network communication capabilities, liquid crystal displays and a wide range of peripheral functions are now very affordable," says Fawaz Bahtaji, product manager at Yazaki North America (Canton, MI). "These integrated, advanced devices are enabling a new level of functionality that was cost- and size-prohibitive 10 years ago."

Smart power electronics are replacing electromechanical devices and enabling further device integration. Recent advancements in optoelectronics and in-vehicle network architectures are connecting devices at an ever-increasing speed. "As a result, vehicles today routinely integrate more than twice the number of electronic components of their predecessors a decade ago, and their software content has been significantly increased," explains Bahtaji.

"Ongoing future advancements in microelectronics and semiconductors, as well as packaging and nanotechnology, will continue to lower the cost per function," predicts Bahtaji. "That will further accelerate this trend and increase the average onboard electronics content from 25 percent today to nearly 35 percent by 2010 of the total vehicle cost."

Automotive Electronics Market Is Huge

Each year brings an increase in the amount of electronics packed into vehicles. According to a recent study conducted by the Freedonia Group, worldwide demand for automotive electronics will grow 7.5 percent annually between now and 2009, when the market hits $124 billion. "That's much more rapidly than vehicle production itself," Ealey points out.

Market forecasts from iSuppli Corp. (El Segundo, CA) are even more bullish. "Automotive is the fastest-growing segment of the major electronic equipment application markets, with global revenue expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 8.3 percent from 2002 to 2008," says Adam Pick, senior analyst. "This exceeds the rate of growth in all other major electronic equipment segments, including data processing and mobile communications."

Pick claims that worldwide shipments of semiconductors used in automotive applications will more than double over the next five years, with sales rising 14.9 percent annually to reach $24.5 billion in 2008, up from $10.7 billion in 2002.

In addition, Pick says sales of power-management ICs and discrete components for vehicles will grow even faster than the market for car-oriented semiconductors. Automotive power-management IC revenues will grow 18.5 percent annually, rising from $1.9 billion in 2002 to $5.3 billion in 2008.

According to Pick, power regulators will lead the growth, with revenue increasing 34.1 percent annually. Power transistor demand is growing 18.4 percent annually, followed by shipments of power application-specific and other discrete parts, which is growing 14.8 percent annually.

More than 1,000 companies around the world produce automotive electronics. However, the number of large, global suppliers is considerably smaller as the industry consolidates. "Suppliers are relying on joint ventures and collaborative agreements to maintain expertise levels," notes Ealey. "Many of the other manufacturers supply parts and subsystems to the Tier 1 producers, which essentially act as prime contractors to the automakers."

The top five suppliers of automotive electronics in the world are Robert Bosch, Delphi Corp. (Troy, MI), Denso Corp. (Kariya, Japan), Visteon Corp. (Van Buren Township, MI) and Siemens VDO Automotive AG (Regensburg, Germany). Ealey says those five manufacturers supplied 42 percent of total OEM demand in 2004.

Growing Demand

Demand for automotive electronics is being fueled by safety systems; driver information and entertainment systems or infotainment; and powertrain management systems. The following functions rely heavily on electronics and are expected to have average annual growth rates in excess of 40 percent between now and the end of this decade: adaptive front lighting; starter-alternators; passive entry systems; tire-pressure monitoring systems; electric parking brakes; head-up displays; electric hybrid drivetrains; active front steering; and electronically controlled manual transmissions.

"The fastest growing area is safety electronics," claims Strategy Analytics's Riches. "The reasons for this are twofold. First, legislation is driving the rapid adoption of systems such as tire pressure monitoring and occupant detection-classification. Secondly, advances in sensors, semiconductors and processing techniques are opening up the possibility of a whole range of advanced safety systems such as collision avoidance, lane departure warning, night vision and blindspot monitoring."

"Safety has been an evergreen growth engine for electronics," adds Ealey. "It is expected to remain so going forward as current safety systems, such as air bags, expand and new systems, such as those related to pedestrian safety, are introduced." Frost & Sullivan Inc. (San Antonio) predicts that the North American market for safety systems will grow from $2.8 billion in 2003 to $4.1 billion in 2010.

"The second-fastest growing area for automotive electronics is in driver information," says Riches. "The proliferation of advanced information and entertainment systems is driving up electronics in this area." More and more people are demanding digital or satellite radios, GPS navigation systems, DVD players, Internet access and other in-vehicle technology.

"Consumers are demanding greater infotainment value from their vehicles and vehicle manufacturers," claims Sandeep Kar, a research analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "The products they have in their homes, such as digital entertainment systems with theater-level infotainment experience, they now want for their vehicles."

Kar predicts that the North American infotainment systems market with grow from $2 billion in 2004 to $5 billion by 2011. "End users' greater awareness about consumer electronics is helping expand the market beyond high-end vehicles to other vehicle segments," Kar points out.

With all those demands, a new breed of power electronics will be required to handle and coordinate the rapidly growing electric power requirements of vehicles. "A rise in average power consumption per vehicle and the delayed adoption of the 42-volt electrical bus for cars will pressure automakers to employ more sophisticated power management systems, such as digitally controlled power," says iSuppli's Pick.

Pick defines digitally controlled power (DCP) as the integration of microcontrollers, digital signal processors, and application-specific silicon and software algorithms for system monitoring, internal and external communication, and control of power systems.

"DCP promises to bring flexibility and programmability to power supplies, leading to increased performance and reliability compared to the traditional analog approach," explains Pick. "This will reduce hardware complexity, accelerating time-to-market and ultimately lowering the cost of electronic systems.

"Automotive systems will use DCP elements and will employ increased amounts of processing and power electronics," adds Pick. "As hybrid and electric vehicles gain greater popularity, growth of this application will accelerate." Pick expects significant penetration of DCP in this segment in the 2008 to 2012 timeframe.

According to Pick, demand for power regulators and transistors in the automotive market will be fueled by the rising popularity of hybrids. There is $500 to $1,000 worth of power electronics in each vehicle, generating a huge opportunity for component suppliers.

In addition, "engine control electronics are becoming more sophisticated to meet emissions requirements," notes Freedonia's Ealey. "And new technologies like valve deactivation systems continue to enter the mix."

Numerous Challenges

Electronics system integration issues, such as how to effectively network multiple ECUs, is one of the biggest challenges facing automotive engineers today. They are mulling the benefits of shifting toward an integrated, aerospace-like approach to electronics.

"Integration is a major concern for all automakers and suppliers," says Jerry Bricker, vice president of sales and marketing at Omron Automotive Electronics Inc. (Novi, MI). "Traditionally, the car has always been treated as a mechanical product." Now, with vehicles so heavily dependent upon software, Bricker says the auto industry is scrambling to bring in systems experts.

"One reason cars require so much software is the continued reliance on largely independent system-level technologies which often feature proprietary software architectures," explains Ealey. "Several high visibility problems involving overly complex electronics systems have also served to elevate the issue."

The implications of integration on the OEM electronics market could be substantial. However, any hoped for cost reductions will likely be offset to an extent by the need for more sophisticated architectures.

"What the auto industry is contemplating in terms of electronics integration has not been attempted before in consumer products of such complexity," Ealey points out. "While several standardization projects are currently underway regarding electronics integration, the auto industry does not have a strong track record of rapidly reaching agreement over such issues.

"Key electronic systems suppliers are stymied by OEM risk aversion at this point," adds Ealey. "Furthermore, while integration promises significant cost savings once rolled out, getting there will be a challenge for every auto company. Consumer unwillingness to increase spending for the latest electronic systems has throttled back expectations by OEMs regarding some newer technologies such as navigation, wireless and telematics. The industry's mandate has thus become increased functionality without increased prices, which is driving cost-effective electronics systems into the automotive platform globally."

Another big challenge is finding a way to bridge the product life cycle gap between consumer electronics and automotive electronics. According to Yazaki's Bahtaji, "consumers are demanding personalization of their environment, and as a result are bringing their personal devices, such as iPods and smart phones, into the automotive environment.

"These devices have a typical life cycle of no more then 18 months, whereas a typical vehicle has a lifespan in excess of 10 years," says Bahtaji. "Providing a standard interface that enables forward compatibility is an ongoing challenge."

Packaging is another challenge, as OEMs attempt to increase vehicle functionalities while maintaining their centralized architecture topology in tidily packaged locations. "This challenge poses a trade-off question to OEMs as they attempt to solve this problem," explains Bahtaji. For instance, engineers must balance module location vs. cable size, number of cables, bend radius, and electromagnetic compatibility concerns associated with high-speed copper, as they attempt to drive high-resolution displays and minimize system cost.

Standardization Efforts

In addition to integration, reliability and product life cycle issues, the global automotive industry is grappling with electronics standardization efforts. Getting automakers to agree to standards would enable suppliers to reduce the levels of proprietary work required for a vehicle platform or model.

Three key factors are important to the future success of automotive electronics: complexity, quality and common standards. "These issues are interrelated and impact one another," claims Bosch's Fehrenbach. "If our industry does not commit to mastering complexity, we will never achieve common standards or improve quality. At the same time, without developing common standards, we will never master complexity in the systems we deliver to the market. These factors are particularly important given the future influx of technology options that will increase a vehicle's electronics."

In an effort to assist manufacturers in achieving high quality through complexity reduction, Bosch and other industry leaders formed AUTOSAR in September 2003. Focused on the Automotive Open System Architecture, the goal of the initiative is to define a worldwide industry standard for basic functions and interfaces in every automotive ECU. It also aims to simplify and encourage the use of standard software packages to reduce the probability of software quality deficiencies as well as costs. The first vehicles designed according to the AUTOSAR rules are expected to be on the market in 2008.

AUTOSAR is widely supported across the global auto industry, because it seeks to establish an open standard for electrical and electronic architectures. Many observers believe it will serve as a basic infrastructure for the management of functions within both future applications and standard software modules.

"But, the scope and timescales of the project are ambitious," says Strategy Analytics's Riches. "The fundamental reasons for developing the standard also vary. Most vehicle manufacturers see it as a way to gain leverage over their suppliers.

"By having a common architecture and software interfaces, they seek to push the hardware down to commodity status," adds Riches. "System suppliers, on the other hand, currently struggle with the numerous and varied approaches of the different carmakers. They spend a lot of time, effort and money in developing a product to a particular customer's specifications-work which almost certainly will have to be redone for the next customer."

Riches believes that this difference in what both parties seek to get out of AUTOSAR, which is dominated by German manufacturers, may lead to some tensions and difficulties. Nevertheless, the Japanese auto industry has formed an initiative called JASPAR. "This has similar goals, but is arguably somewhat less ambitious and more pragmatic in its approach," says Riches. "This makes it all the more likely to succeed.

"The most successful standards tend to be those that have emerged as de factos," notes Riches. For example, he points to the CAN networking protocol. Most standardization work is now focused around such communications protocols. For low-speed applications, LIN is favored. But, CAN is preferred for many high-speed applications.

At the very high-end, there is cross-industry support for Flexray. "This is a time-triggered protocol, initially devised for the anticipated forthcoming x-by-wire applications," explains Riches. "However, it is also likely to be used as a high-bandwith protocol in applications such as high-end powertrains."