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Instrument Clusters: Time for a Change

21 April 2011

Traditional instrument clusters are a key element of cars that undergo signi?cant changes in the near future. Several reasons indicate why the time has arrived for an evolution of traditional main vehicle instrument cluster units. These include:

  • Display and semiconductor technologies are available at reasonable prices in several key areas, such as liquid crystal displays (LCD), graphics processors and controller units, sensors and light-emitting diode (LED) modules.
  • New features and applications, with obvious possibilities for integration into instrument clusters, are being introduced into cars via entertainment, navigation, advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) and diagnostic systems. Although multi-purpose head units still will have the main display capability, clusters will be able offer the driver–especially for multimedia content—an auxiliary screen, even if it were only to access main vehicle information and safety data from ADAS.
  • Safety is a major goal for all original equipment manufacturers (OEM). Driver distraction is one area where a lot of effort is being spent by OEMs in order to safely offer readable data via an optimized human machine interface (HMI). Digital technology and LCD displays integrated in the cluster will offer a suitable, easily configured solution to meet customer needs.
  • Flexibility for OEMs. With the technology above, OEMs will have new opportunities to diversify, customize and give their own stylistic imprint to vehicle brands, particularly when integrating various functionalities that go far beyond the standard miles-per-hour or fuel/oil level indicators.
  • Because of massive functionality integration, system integrators will need to ensure a scalable and modular approach that will reduce development time and costs.

Market Trends and Availability
Fujitsu and Freescale Semiconductor are among the semiconductor suppliers targeting digital clusters with advanced graphics capabilities.

For its part, Fujitsu has presented its approach to new-generation cluster units, offering a broad portfolio for a wide range of implementation possibilities. The move by Fujitsu is in line with the trend among Japanese suppliers to focus attention on technically advanced solutions.

Fujitsu approaches cluster differentiation with scalable and cost-efficient architectures. The company’s solutions cover different possible scenarios, ranging from an economic cluster unit based on gauges and a simple display with 100/400 segments supported by their ATLAS microcontroller, up to a fully 2-D/3-D display-based cluster supported by the Fujitsu Emerald system-on-chip (SoC) and automotive pixel link (APIX).

Freescale also has showed interest and the need for upgraded cluster functionalities, with the company’s focus on a more cost-effective solution marking a significant difference from the Fujitsu slant.

Freescale approaches display-based instrument clusters by trying to understand the potentially critical cost impact, targeting for this reason a dedicated fragmented frame buffer method that aims to reduce the overall bill of materials (BOM), in particular limiting the need for costly volatile memory for data buffering. This methodology was implemented recently by the Freescale graphics microcontroller with the MPC5606S device.

IHS iSuppli forecasts that availability worldwide of hybrid analog/digital instrument clusters—in the nine core countries tracked in the Infotainment portal—will reach nearly 70 percent in 2011, up from close to 30 percent in 2007.

In comparison, fully digital cluster availability lags behind somewhat, expected to reach barely over 2.5 percent in 2011, but up from 0.4 percent in 2007. High-end vehicles—or those with a base price of more than $40,000—are expected to more aggressively implement digital solutions, reaching an availability rate of approximately 8 percent globally in 2011.

Instrument clusters seem to show once more that electronic content in the vehicle will continue to increase, driven by the integration of several functionalities that focus first on driver comfort and safety.

Learn More > IHS iSuppli Automotive Research Portal - Components & Devices

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