As we embark on our journey with electronics technology challenges and innovation in 2018, let’s take a look at what will be developing in the automotive sector regarding MEMS and sensor technology.

While at the MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress (MSEC) last November 2017, the most exciting speaker for me was Lars Reger, CTO for NXP Automotive. Not only was the presentation packed with excellent technical details, but Reger was by far the most animated presenter of these sessions (not to diminish the other speakers and presentations because all of them were excellent--Reger just had a very strong stage presence and excitement about him!).

Reger discussed the incredible opportunity before us as engineers/innovators in the automotive electronics arena, with connectivity, autonomy, and electrification, combined with critical safe and secure mobility.

With 1.3M traffic deaths occurring each year, Reger commented that 90% are caused by human error. Wow, that’s almost like a war! Especially highlighted was the percentage increase of pedestrians who died when hit by a vehicle as the speed of the vehicle rose. At 35km/h 90% survived; at 50km/h just 50% survived; and at 70km/h only 10% survived.

The complete solution

Reger outlined the complete solution, making reference to where Qualcomm could offer their expertise (Figure 1).


Figure 1 Electronics to empower sense, think, and act functionality in automobiles (Image courtesy of NXP)

Qualcomm would complement NXP with their expertise in cellular and WiFi, BT, GNSS and NFC for fusion and infotainment.

Best-in-class sensors would enable autonomous vehicles to sense the environment to attain the correct speed, best traction, and acceleration and movement for any particular situation encountered (Figure 2).


Figure 2 Sensor fusion enables highly automated driving (Image courtesy of NXP)

Safety and security

NXP has a Safe Assure technology where functional safety looks at unintentional hazards which are predictable and regularly occur; standard passive and active safety systems in effect today with predictive safety to be implemented in the future; and the all-important security.

Sensor demand is being driven by a series of driver levels outlined by the industry:

  • Levels 1 and 2: A human driver monitors the driving environment where some sensors will control the trajectory of the vehicle. Here, there are sensors added to the vehicle that will aid the driver such as accelerometers, gyros, front radar, and blind spot rear, front, and surround-view cameras.
  • Levels 3, 4, and 5: An automated driving system with environmental and inertial sensors to monitor the vehicle trajectory.

Modern sensor technology will help the vehicle to learn to drive safely from the surrounding environment. With such innovations as sensor fusion, distance measurement, road sign recognition, route planning and mapping, precise positioning, and critical arbitration (resolution of potential simultaneous message transmission by two different nodes, also known as collisions, is controlled by the master processor using a software capability known as arbitration), the vehicle will be far safer than ever before especially in this world of distracted human drivers.


Figure 3
The myriad of MEMS and sensors in the modern automobile (Image courtesy of NXP)

MEMS inertial sensors are another excellent addition to the automobile since they help the vehicle to control its autonomous trajectory and state of critical elements like intelligent tires which contain pressure sensors.

Pressure sensors

The automobile applications for pressure sensors includes tire pressure monitoring, pedestrian protection (bumper sensors can detect a pedestrian being struck and instantaneously raise the hood, hinged in the front of the car, via pyrotechnics to soften the collision, reducing head impact), side crash detection for air bag deployment, and in the internal combustion engine with gas tank sensors, gas injector sensors, engine control module (ECM) sensors, and other areas to come.

Motion sensors

The obvious motion sensors in an automobile that we know are airbag sensors and key fob security motion detection. But there are also inertial satellite sensors and rollover sensors which combine with a low-g sensor in the y and z direction inside the airbag control unit area.

An interesting application in the key fob region is regarding a possible driveway attack (Figure 4).


Figure 4
The added use of a MEMS motion sensor in conjunction with the passive keyless entry application with which we are all familiar, is that thieves/attackers can be thwarted or at least revealed to the driver/homeowner. (Image courtesy of NXP)

Magnetic sensors

Magnetic sensors are useful for brake/wheel speed, steering, windshield wiper control, and engine control. Reger told us that the challenge is not only to master the brain of the car, but to capture the environment around it.

Drivers need to have absolute certainty about the physical state of the car and modern MEMS and sensor technology is right at the interface with the analog world.

There are so many more applications for MEMS and sensors that we cannot even imagine right now, but as we progress toward autonomous driving we will find so many more exciting applications, as well as newly developed sensor technology to make driving safer and more pleasurable.

Stay in tune with what’s happening with MEMS and sensor technology with semi.org of which the MEMS & Sensors Industry Group (MSIG) is a part.

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Steve Taranovich is a senior technical editor at EDN with 45 years of experience in the electronics industry.

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