The advent of the PC and the explosion in growth of mobile multimedia systems are set to transform the passenger car as we know it, according to a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit : The Electronics Revolution in the Motor Industry: 2000 edition. From lights, horn and a starter, the automotive electrical system has grown to incorporate a proliferation of functions. Power demand is growing at four percent annually, and has already passed two kilowatts of requirement on many modern vehicles and is reaching three, a sort of “breaking point” at which the belt-drive alternator becomes a problematic appendage.

Such is the growth that the total content of electronics in a vehicle will reach more than 30% of an executive car’s value (compared with 23% today) and around 20% of a three-door hatchback’s value by 2005. Mobile multimedia systems will account for more than half of this amount with powertrain and drivetrain accounting for around 30%. Safety systems will account for around 10% with the remainder accounted for by miscellaneous items such as keyless entry and air conditioning.

The advent of mobile multimedia systems into the car is now in full swing. We have already reached the stage where “infotainment” systems are beginning to be fitted into cars, usually sports utility vehicles, where the kids in the back can either play computer games or watch the latest DVD movie while the parents in the front are driving to their destination with the aid of an active navigation system. Soon drivers will be communicating with the rest of the world by voice activated e-mails and surfing the Web to find out the latest weather news or stock reports.

Electronics are also spreading from inside the car to every other area, replacing parts that were once mechanical or hydraulic. Electronic transmission systems, brake-by-wire, steer-by-wire, vehicle stability systems and even the “beltless” engine are now making their way onto vehicles while traditional electronic items such as the lights and wipers are being improved.

The car is now reaching the position where 12 volts is not enough, so the next big step will be the arrival of the 42-volt system. Most manufacturers are working on such a system although most are keeping it a closely guarded secret as to when it will be introduced. The EIU estimates that first appearance on a production vehicle will be 2003.

The report identifies areas where electronics are revolutionising the vehicle:

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By GlobalData
  • The next step in the integration of electronics in the vehicle is the connection of all computers on a “vehicle intranet”, similar to the computer network in offices. This will provide a simple and flexible installation with a minimum of wiring. Swedish truck producer, Scania, as well as DaimlerChrysler and Delphi are already pioneering this. The EIU predicts that intranet systems will make a first appearance on passenger cars in 2001.
  • The driver will have a voice activated screen to send and receive e-mails verbally or go on the Internet. The multimedia system will communicate directly with a home or office PC.
  • Many of the controls will be taken out of the driver’s hands-for example the car may not be allowed to exceed the speed limit.
  • 42-volt vehicle systems will enable more effective use of drive-by-wire technologies, ride control systems and electromagnetic valvetrain, as well as lighter wiring with related “bundle” size reduced by 20%.
  • Spark plugs of the future could use neural-network technology to double as engine performance sensors.
  • Active wheel sensors, incorporated in tyre tread patterns, will accelerate reaction times for both ABS and ESP (electronic stability programmes) in the future. Magnetised tyre sidewalls will alert these other systems in advance to sudden evasive action taken by the driver.
  • After an extended lead-time, multiplexing-the replacement of conventional wiring by a single rationalised system-will finally appear across production executive cars from 2000/01. The Volvo S80 has already shown the way in this respect with savings in weight, fewer connections and more complete communications.
  • Night vision systems made their first appearance on Cadillac models earlier this year. However the EIU remains sceptical about the volume adoption of this head-up display technology, despite the enhanced image which it offers.
  • The next stage in vehicle security will incorporate “biometric” access as with early Siemens’ systems which intelligently “read” individuals’ fingerprints. Sensors will authorise access to the vehicle as well as permitting keyless starting of the engine and fuzzy logic will set the automatic gearbox to the individual driver’s requirements. 65,000 sensor electrodes are incorporated in the identification process.
  • “Bluetooth” technology will usher in a new protocol of “open wire-less networking”-spelling the end of the need for hands-free mobile phone facilities in the car. Irrespective of type or precise location of the phone in the vehicle, by turning on the radio, the driver may issue voice-activated instructions, which the radio will relay by short-wave to the phone, eg “call home”.
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