ASSEMBLY recently asked Joel Hoffmann, strategic market development manager of Intel’s Automotive Solutions Div., to discuss current trends affecting the automotive electronics sector. 

Intel Corp. is the world’s largest manufacturer of microprocessors and embedded semiconductors. Its Atom processors play a key role behind many in-vehicle infotainment systems. The systems feature navigation, but can also show real-time information such as engine diagnostics, weather updates and traffic with smart routing.

ASSEMBLY recently asked Joel Hoffmann, strategic market development manager of Intel’s Automotive Solutions Div., to discuss the current trends affecting the automotive electronics sector.

ASSEMBLY: What is driving demand for automotive electronics today?

HOFFMANN: Automotive electronics is being driven by three factors: Government regulations, increased desire for embedded applications, and services and uses provided by personal mobile devices. Government regulations are growing worldwide. For example, portable navigation devices are not allowed to be attached to the windshield in Germany. In the United States, there are increasing restrictions regarding cell phone usage state-by-state. These regulations drive applications like embedded navigation and hands-free, speech-driven mobile device connectivity.

Telematics, traditionally defined as turn-by-turn navigation, concierge and emergency series such as On Star, has triggered the desire for 2.5D, moving to 3D navigation. Finally, the wide expansion of smart phones and music players has unleashed a desire to play personal content any time, any where. The first generation of Ford SYNC acted as a gateway device between the wireless network and the electronics backplane of the car.

While integration of consumer electronics has been driving huge demand for new vehicles the last several years, this has also started to create a problem for automakers and suppliers. The constant acceleration and change in services consumers expect to use on personal mobile devices continues to outpace the ability for the automotive industry to deliver solutions that are flexible enough to arrive much later in the market, and stay useful for the ownership period of the vehicle. Another significant consideration is the concern over driver distraction that consumer device integration has highlighted.

ASSEMBLY: How are today’s automotive electronics different than five to 10 years ago?

HOFFMANN: Automotive electronics have become more robust and easier to mass produce than in the past. Reliability has always been a requirement for automotive electronics. Thus, extensive qualification and testing methods have been developed over the years. Devices are generally becoming smaller and less power is required to operate them. This aligns well to the trend toward hybrid and battery electric vehicles that will push the envelope on efficiency.

ASSEMBLY: Approximately what percent of the typical vehicle contains electronic content today? How does this compare to 20 years ago? Can we expect to see this percentage increase in the future?

HOFFMANN: It is clear that the volume of electronics in the car is increasing, as well as the volume of software. Testing and validation are becoming the most demanding element of vehicle development as these systems become increasingly complex and interactive.

It really depends how you define automotive electronics. Every car uses electronics for engine monitoring, moving seats and operating windows. The usage of electronics is increasing year over year. The number of processors and components may decrease as controllers are consolidated to be running several uses simultaneously.

ASSEMBLY: As demand has increased over the last decade, has the cost of various automotive electronic devices dropped?

HOFFMANN: We see declining prices being paid for electronic components across all industries, including automotive, but the continued evolution of Moore’s Law has allowed costs to reduce, as well. However, due to the extensive qualification requirements, there are fewer vendors in automotive electronics than other segments, so pressure on pricing appears to come from legacy purchasing methods and contract negotiations throughout the automotive supply chain. As long as costs can be shared across industries, such as what is being accomplished through Open Source development in projects like MeeGo, and by industry standard adoption organizations like GENIVI Alliance, the electronics industry can succeed by reducing costs with advanced manufacturing processes.

It is important to note, however, that there is still huge growth in electronics added to cars for aspects of in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) such as navigation, connectivity and entertainment. Processors, like Intel’s Atom, can run multiple IVI applications concurrently. And running on an open-based operating system, like MeeGO, lets the IVI system developer and Tier 1 supplier, reuse applications from other markets like smart phones, tablets and notebooks, with modifications for safe driver use.

ASSEMBLY: What types of on-board features are currently driving demand for electronics?

HOFFMANN: Infotainment is driving demand, with emphasis on entertainment (audio and video), navigation (maps, guidance and points of interest), and connectivity (phone contacts, e-mail, Web-based service integration and app stores). Telematics are becoming a ubiquitous feature in new cars, only limited by the cost of services provided. From a hardware perspective, many vehicles are equipped with a “telematics box” such as OnStar or Ford Sync, which act as gateway devices-with no display typically needed-between the wireless network and the electronics backplane of the car. In many experimental designs, full integration of the power train and safety critical elements of the car has been shown. This begins to blur the line between infotainment systems and fully intelligent vehicles.

In an attempt to quell the distraction issues recently highlighted, new safety oriented features utilizing not only voice interaction, but other gesture, fingertip controls, eye- and head-tracking sensors, will likely begin to appear in the 2015 time frame. These increased applications, combined with more intuitive controls, require increased intelligence and processor performance.

ASSEMBLY: What types of electronic devices are automakers and suppliers looking for today? How does the Atom processor address those needs?

HOFFMANN: Atom is designed to perform well under a wide variety of computing tasks. Typically, delivering higher performance than the baseline requirements of an IVI system, the Atom processor can absorb use cases and functions previously serviced by multiple components or modules. For example, a single Atom processor, can provide 3D navigation and hands-free cell phone use for the driver, while passengers can watch a video or access information on where they are heading.

Similar to what is happening in enterprise data centers; we see electronics control unit consolidation as a critical plan for automotive companies to retain competitive pricing for the entire vehicle as electronics content continues to rise. Historically, automotive electronics have been a combination of limited function computing components tied to dedicated support chips (such as DSPs) added to deliver well-defined applications. As software and flexibility becomes more significant than electronics hardware in the car, we see this reversing, and the Intel Atom processor is ready for the challenge to run all of that software. The biggest advantage is the increased flexibility that the system designer, developer, and ultimately the consumer, will gain from the expanded software functions.

ASSEMBLY: Do you expect to see even more demand for electronics in the future?

HOFFMANN: Electronics demand is increasing in vehicles and will continue, mostly due to the increased sophistication of software concepts coming from the consumer space and consumers’ desire to have the latest and greatest at home, work and on the go. As software complexity increases, more layered development tools need to be used. All of these innovations drive larger memory footprints and more processing performance.

In the past, automotive software was written in machine code and was extremely compact. Automakers would specify hardware that only met the current needs of that software with no headroom. The reasoning was that the same software would be running in the car 10 years after the buyer drove out of the showroom. Now, app stores and Internet services are expected to introduce new applications over the ownership period, and the car needs additional headroom to process those applications. This drives demand at the high end for electronics, even in mid-range vehicles.

In addition, the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles requires a significant increase in electronics. The car’s battery level must be closely monitored, and the driver must be kept informed of the nearest charging stations. The navigation application must be constantly connected to the EV infrastructure.

ASSEMBLY: What emerging on-board features will have the biggest affect on future demand for electronic devices?

HOFFMANN: Communications in general-particularly, vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure-will drive new use cases that expand beyond today’s fixed applications. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication allows for collision avoidance. Vehicle-to-infrastructure (or infrastructure-to-vehicle) communication will provide more accurate traffic updates, hazard information and emergency alerts. When a use case is clearly understood and defined, then discrete electronics can be developed to meet that requirement.

When use cases are developed over the life of the vehicle and updated to the car, there will always be a higher level of demand on the device. This is already visible in smart phones, where built-in applications typically place less demand on the device than user downloaded apps. Optimization of systems and software is not typically available after the vehicle is developed, so room for future applications must be accommodated, even if the automaker controls which applications can be added.

Motorists are also using an increased number of driver-assist functions. Back-up cameras will lead to surround-view capabilities. Automated park-assist will become more prevalent, along with connectivity to find the driver that empty parking place. Sign recognition and object detection will let a driver know when he’s going too fast, or “see” an animal in the road ahead.

ASSEMBLY: What are the challenges of manufacturing electronics for automotive applications?

HOFFMANN: Automotive electronics need to be tested under the broadest range of temperatures, well beyond industrial requirements. Strict quality requirements demand extensive validation of manufacturing processes and capabilities. Since a small flaw in an electronic component can affect the entire ownership experience for the most expensive asset most consumers purchase, there is great risk if the supply chain does not hold to the high automotive quality standards.

ASSEMBLY: Can most electronic devices be used across multiple vehicle platforms and segments? Are most electronic devices proprietary to OEMs and suppliers, or are there lots of commonly shared components today?

HOFFMANN: Until recently, nearly all automotive electronic devices have been custom designed for each automaker by Tier 1 suppliers. Often, the same automaker will use different designs and suppliers for different models and variations within its product line. Each of these developments can cost tens of millions of dollars, with costs often passed back to suppliers. If a vehicle does not sell well, the supplier loses money on the volume of units that were built for that vehicle. This is why so many suppliers were forced into bank reorganization when the overall industry slumped during the past few years.

Ideally, this will change, but a new form of standardization still needs to evolve and fit the automotive industry requirements. This standardization happens in the software stacks. One approach is to bring open standards coming from the Open Source community, heralded by the Linux operating system. Innovation layered on top of a standard automotive Linux stack can be reused by hardware and software suppliers.

This will drive development of more broadly purposed electronics components, much like the way enterprise IT computers are horizontally developed and quickly brought to market at lower costs. Industry alliances, such as GENIVI and community projects like the Linux Foundation’s MeeGo, are increasingly investing to help in this software standardization.

ASSEMBLY: What types of electronics do you expect to see used in future vehicles?

HOFFMANN: There will be an increase in support for lower cost 4G networks, such as WiMAX and LTE, to connect to content and applications in the Internet cloud. Cars will become another node (with multiple connections) on the network. The limiting factor for making this a standard feature is covering the cost of the carrier delivered service. As carriers become more interested in expanding their business by supporting cars with special pricing plans, this will become very popular.