Vehicle electronics are becoming increasingly complex but that complexity is expected to lead ultimately to more efficient, lower cost vehicles. Electronics provide an ideal conduit for channelling the desires of various opposing forces within the motor industry – the designer, the stylist, the marketing organisation, the production planner, the customer – and their various expectations into a single vehicle that satisfies everybody.

Also driving the market forward is the desire of the major microprocessor manufacturers, such as Fujitsu, Motorola, Philips and STMicro, to create new applications for their products. Each of these has more capacity than market outlets, so any potential niches are vigorously explored. This is being achieved via the major Tier One component and sub-assembly suppliers, most notably Delphi, Visteon and Valeo – companies that are equally enthusiastic to develop new levels of involvement with their existing and potential client base. Also active are such businesses as Aisin, Bosch and Siemens VDO, all of whom are pursuing ever-increasing slices of the OEM cake.

Working via a complex series of strategic alliances and partnerships, the Tier One suppliers are able to not only come up with novel solutions (sometimes for problems that the auto makers have yet to recognise exist) but also to provide a pipeline for novel thinking by smaller companies which hitherto have had little or no input into car design.

Indicative of the new way of thinking is the application of Bluetooth in an automotive environment. Bluetooth is a close-range (typically no greater than 10 metres and often half that) radio system which has been developed by the mobile communications industry for use in linking together personal telephones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and both laptop and desktop computers. It was soon realised that this system could also prove extremely useful in a vehicle environment, providing a means of integrating a personal telephone with a car’s handsfree kit, linking a PDA to an on-board information system, and so forth. Simply by ensuring that a Bluetooth chip is fitted in each item and in the car, it becomes possible to eliminate the usual morass of wiring which is a feature of today’s personal/car phone interfaces.

BMW recently announced that it has a kit available to allow MINI owners to use a Compaq iPaq PDA as a communication and display tool. This involves the driver having a wired-in cradle which allows the PDA to function as a telematics platform; it combines navigation, location-based information, entertainment download capability and communications into a single device which can be used in the office, on the move and in the car. Bluetooth would have enabled this service to be offered with far less wiring, and thus a lower unit build cost. BMW is expected to provide a Bluetooth-enabled variant in due course, as are various other manufacturers which have become interested in the advantages offered by the technology.

Had it not been for Tier One suppliers having contacts on either side of their businesses, it is unlikely that the auto industry would be sufficiently interested in the system to even consider it. As a result of the Tier One suppliers adopting the technology, they are able to assist Bluetooth developers to a new marketplace, and at the same time to deal with auto industry-specific issues such as local, national and international components accreditation and safety certification. They have also been able to explain to the communications industry the difference in timescale between the nine months from design to on-sale to which they are accustomed, to the 24-36 months (traditionally even longer) it takes to achieve the same with a new model of car.

Equipment demands rising
Bluetooth is by no means the only completely new way of addressing the challenges that the auto industry faces. Ever-increasing levels of equipment (driven in part at least by increased customer expectations) are forcing complete and radical solutions, such as the rapid adoption of multiplex wiring systems, the imminent arrival of 42-volt power systems, and new driver interface systems. Finally, telematics – the provision of two way, location-sensitive information and entertainment – is creating yet more problems and loading greater demands on the design and manufacturing aspects of the auto industry.

The arrival of 42-volt systems
If you had spoken to engineers three or four years ago, many would have been confident predicting that the arrival of 42-volt power systems was just three or four years away. About now, in fact.

So what went wrong? Why is the industry still waiting for the one real advance that could transform what can be done with a car and the way we use it?

“Five years ago the industry said that those that didn’t have 42-volt systems within three years would be dead,” says Keith Jackson, chief executive officer of PI Group, based in Cambridge, England.

Now the pull for the industry really is imminent, he believes – and that ‘pull’ is drive-by-wire or X-by-wire, as it is often known. Also pulling the industry towards 42-volt systems is the imminent arrival of more and more hybrid systems.

One of the problems that has delayed the arrival of 42-volt systems is the high conversion costs from 14-volt power distribution while at the same time working out a way to keep those parts – like conventional filament bulbs used in side lights and rear brake lights – that stay with 14-volt systems.

There is expected to be a limited number of applications using dual 42-volt and 14-volt systems from 2003, but the big push will come from about 2007.

Peter Bowlus, industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan, a marketing consultancy company, predicts that by 2008, around 5% of vehicles will be using 42-volt technology. By 2012, up to 20% are expected to feature 42-volt systems. This figure is projected to climb to 40% of vehicles by the end of the forecast period in 2015.

Expert Analysis

An independent review of the market for automotive electronics

This detailed report covers the key automotive electronics issues in discussion today: 42v technology, hybrids, x-by-wire, chassis & powertrain control, instrument clusters, advanced driver aids and advanced safety systems such as lane departure warning, and crash detection and avoidance. It also discusses emerging and future applications for body electronics, vehicle information systems, telematics plus electric and petrol/electric hybrids.It concludes with a look at motorsport applications in domestic vehicles and company briefs of the key players. For more details click here.


“Most vehicle manufacturers are set to introduce their 42-volt vehicles in 2008, however, the market will witness the arrival of 42-volt vehicles on the automotive stage even before then,” says Bowlus. “Audi has already introduced vehicles with a limited 42-volt application for windscreen heating, while PSA is expected to introduce its 42-volt vehicles in 2003. Furthermore, a number of 42-volt sports-utility vehicles (SUVs) are expected to penetrate the market over the next few years.”

The other driver for 42-volt systems is the Euro 5 fuel consumption and emissions regulations in 2008. This requires a reduction in average emissions of carbon dioxide from 180 to 140 grammes. This means a reduction in average consumption from 7.6 to 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres (37.17 mpg to 48.7 mpg).

Crankshaft starter-alternators will enter the spotlight as the preferred technology for 42-volt applications. In 2010, over 5% of starters and alternators are expected to be crankshaft-mounted, and this is expected to rise to 27% by 2015.

There is one other aspect of the move to 42-volt systems. Since it will allow far more electronic content to be added to production vehicles, it could open up a new outlet for electronics companies that are not at the moment suppliers to the auto industry. If these companies can come up with the right product and the right price, there could be huge opportunities for them.

The pressing need for 42-volt systems is that, linked to an integrated starter-alternator, it will allow features to be incorporated that make cars more economical and create fewer emissions, as well as a host of comfort features.

Key features include:

  • Stop-go when car is stationary;
  • Car driven on battery power alone when in cities or towns;
  • Battery power to boost IC engine power under acceleration;
  • Intelligent transport system compatibility;
  • Drive-by-wire;
  • Multiple sensors (for collision avoidance, parking aids);

  • Electric water pumps;
  • Pre-heated exhaust catalysts to reduce emissions;
  • Pre-heated and pre-cooled interiors; and
  • Entertainment systems and drink and food heaters and coolers.