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You could say that today's automobile is a "computer on wheels," but from a point of accuracy it would be more like 35 computers on wheels. With printed circuit boards being the backbone of our electronic products, this is major market segment for our industry.
The Evolution of Automotive Electronics
Many of us can painfully remember our early cars that had manual door locks, windows we had to crank up and down, and doors that we actually had to put the key in the lock to open. The rise of electronic content in automobiles has been relatively steep. The 1977 Oldsmobile Toronado had a very simple computer unit that was used for spark plug timing, and the following year the Cadillac Seville offered an optional trip computer running a Motorola chip. This transformation is further supported when looking at cost; according to the publication IEEE Spectrum, as a percentage of vehicle costs, electronics climbed to 15% in 2005 from 5% in the late 1970s—and would be approaching 25% today. Figure 1 highlights some major milestones in automotive electronics innovation.
Today, even basic vehicles have at least 30 microprocessor-controlled devices, known as electronic control units (ECU), and a high-end luxury car like a BMW 7-series model can have up to 150 ECUs and five miles of wiring. These ECUs are the vehicle’s electronic brains and control dozens of functions, including managing the efficiency of the car, the steering and the surround view system to avoid collisions; the Wi-Fi system that provides information on attractions, gas stations, traffic, etc.; and the electronic stability/traction control to maintain proper steering, and sensors that deploy airbags during a collision. Then there are the audio/video center stack that provides entertainment and navigation, dashboards with heads-up display (HUD), and, of course, electric windows with intelligence features. Software and multiple PCBs drive each of these ECUs that function both independently and as part of an overall vehicle electronic network.
Are Cars Too Complex?
I received a recall notice the other day for my 2014 truck, but it wasn’t for anything mechanical; it was for the entertainment system. The recall said a chip upgrade was needed to prevent hackers from stealing personal information through the entertainment system and any smartphones connected through it. This was amazing to me, so I did some research and found that not only can someone hack into the system, but with the right equipment they can control the vehicle remotely. How scary is that? Then I found this recent story about a car whose system was hacked while it was being driven down the road.
Now that cars are more mechanically sound than ever before, the vehicle's infotainment system will become the next major system to continue to advance. With today's tech-savvy consumer there are three things that “smart” systems must be: easy to use, fast, and familiar. In fact, many automakers are mimicking smartphone interfaces into their next-generation infotainment systems to be sure to hit these three attributes. Ford’s 2016 Sync 3 version will feature a more responsive "capacitive" touchscreen that users can swipe and pinch to zoom, just like a smartphone screen. The smartphone-inspired interface features large touch targets, with high contrast, which make it better for automotive use.
On the luxury side of things, Audi debuted the interior for the next-generation Q7, which borrows the virtual cockpit from the 2016 Audi TT. That environment includes a 12-inch TFT display that doubles as the gauge array and infotainment system. For the Q7, Audi adds a touchpad with pinch-to-zoom control and “haptic” feedback (meaning you get a tactile response, such as a vibration, when you touch the pad). It also features improved voice control that will respond to such natural-voice commands as, "Where can I fill up?" or "Where is the nearest restaurant?"