Electronics and Semiconductors

Have automotive sensors gotten smarter?

21 September 2021
Drivers’ inputs are becoming more centered around electronics, and eventually we may see the driver being removed from the equation altogether. Source: AdobeStock

The internet of things (IoT) has changed modern lives worldwide. Consumers are now integrated with wearable technology, smartphones and other machines and devices due to the IoT's exponential growth. It has also created new ways and environments in which to consume, share, process and generate data. It has also infiltrated multiple industries and has begun to revolutionize the way these industries operate.

The automotive industry has been no exception to this, and communication devices and electronics are still advancing at a rapid rate, working their way into more and more aspects of vehicle design. Consequently, cars have become more like big computers rather than mechanical machines!

Sensors have played a huge role in the adoption of many of these new technologies, and as time goes by their role will only increase in importance. This is because a lot of the time sensors act as the enabler for the network connections found in present and future technologies. In fact, cars have only just begun to start connecting to the internet. Whoever thought 20 years ago that there would ever be a need for a car to connect to the internet! But as we are in this new remote-controlled world, a few key functions can now begin to be controlled from anywhere, and the number of functions that can be controlled will only continue to grow with IoT controlled networks.

Sensors in the past

About 20 years ago, the very first automotive sensor was used in luxury vehicles. It was about the size of a modern smartphone, and was used to enhance active safety. Nowadays, this technology has almost become as common as wheels and tires on cars, with more than 50 of these very sensors being featured on a typical modern vehicle. The number of these sensors (and sensors in general) grow as sensor technology continues to shrink and sensor performance also improves.

Sensors have not only improved safety aspects and the electrical architecture of vehicles, but they have also managed to greatly improve the driving experience. Sensors are almost guaranteed to continue their growth as they provide great benefits to vehicles in many different ways, however suppliers and manufacturers should still be aware of the trends that are popular at the moment and that will be continuing into the future.

Sensors today

There are three main trends in sensor growth and application that will end up greatly affecting the trajectory of future “smart” automobiles.

  • Legal safety requirements — We spoke above about how the first sensor that was installed in a vehicle was to enhance the active safety of that vehicle. The emphasis on safety where sensors are concerned has not diminished over the years, as sensors make most safety-driven applications possible. The complexity of their applications has grown over the years from pre-crash safety and airbags, to systems that actively work toward preventing accidents, like systems that can analyze traffic in real-time to then activate features like lane-keeping assistance, smart cruise control, adaptive headlights, blind-spot detection, tire-pressure monitoring and more. Electronic stability control (ESC, also known as traction control) and anti-lock braking have become the absolute standard, with more complicated systems like automated driving and driver assistance systems being offered in luxury and commercial vehicles.
  • Comfort and entertainment — Some of the advantages of sensors concern the consumer driving experience, including new features like temperature sensing, seat-memory functions, traffic sign recognition and keyless entry. These are not absolutely necessary to the vehicle’s functionality, but they add prestige and an improved driving experience, along with enhanced quality of life.
  • Green standards — As with all new technology advancements, these new sensors can have a significant impact on the environmental footprint of the vehicle they are installed in. There is potential for great fuel efficiency, and improvement engine management functions. It was found that a double clutch transmission has saved up to 10% on fuel costs when compared to a standard transmission. This is made possible by the combination of actuators and sensors in order to improve the efficiency of the drivetrain.
  • Sensors in the future — Is it evident that sensors have brought vehicle technology a long way, so where can it go from here? The biggest leap that sensor technology is now aiming for is the coveted driverless car. This will allow sensors to reach their full potential by completely controlling the vehicle, taking any human input out of the equation. This is still a significant amount of time away, but it is a dream no more. Test vehicles have already hit the streets, in an attempt to continue perfecting the technology. When the very first commercialized driverless car hits the market, it will be a revolutionary vehicle from an efficiency and safety standpoint and will hopefully reduce the number of accidents and fatalities in the future.

There will naturally be new safety requirements and laws when such a machine does hit the streets. Luckily, the technology has already been created to deal with these new demands. On the other hand, driving is an art form that is loved by many, and it would be a great shame to see all manual functions be removed from vehicles in the future. The ideal vehicle will be configurable depending on the amount of control and input the driver wants to have.

To contact the author of this article, email engineering360editors@globalspec.com

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