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A Chip in the Old Block

Modern Cars Are Evolving Into Rolling Computers


Powerful networks of computers buried in the guts of cars and trucks are increasingly making life-critical decisions on the highway, although motorists hardly realize what's going on behind the dashboard and under the hood.

Vehicle electronics are advancing so rapidly that cars have become among the most sophisticated electronic products on the consumer market, built with reliability levels and safety philosophies borrowed from jetliners and nuclear power plants.

Software is notoriously prone to breakdowns in offices and homes around the world, and nobody would knowingly trust their lives to a personal computer or cell phone, given their software glitches, disconnections and other balky behavior.

But with little fanfare, the automobile industry is aggressively pushing forward with an electronics architecture for vehicles that relies on dozens of microprocessors--distributed throughout the engine, transmission, suspension, braking system and body--that are more and more reliant on sophisticated software.

These systems make instantaneous decisions about when to apply brakes to enhance stability, deploy air bags in a crash, turn on windshield wipers in the rain and shut down fuel systems to prevent explosions.

At the same time, these microprocessors are being linked together in sophisticated data networks that allow seemingly unrelated parts of the car to communicate. The windows communicate with the vehicle's security system. The anti-lock brakes communicate with the suspension system. The engine communicates with the transmission. And, of course, there are the global positioning satellite systems, Internet and cellular phone systems now on board many cars.

Mechanical engineers, long the authorities behind the design and development of cars, are increasingly sharing their domain with electrical engineers.

"You will see more and more of the chief engineers coming from the electrical area," predicts UC Berkeley engineering professor J. Karl Hedrick, director of the California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH) intelligent roadway program.

Car companies are experiencing a cultural revolution, and independent companies such as Delphi Automotive Systems, Visteon, Denso and Bosch are becoming critical suppliers of electronic technology to the car makers. Their role in automotive design is destined to grow dramatically.

"Many consumers don't realize just how advanced the technology is, particularly the embedded control systems for the powertrain and the safety devices," said John Sinelli, an engineer at Visteon, one of the auto industry's major electronics suppliers. "Because it is not sitting on a desktop, people are not aware of it. But it is every bit as sophisticated as what goes into complex products like airplanes."

Cars with advanced features, such as navigation systems, rain-sensitive wiper blades, side impact air bags and Internet connections, already are packed with about 80 microprocessors and control modules. The global auto industry accounts for $17 billion worth of semiconductor consumption annually. In the next four years, the value of semiconductor chips alone will leap 30% to $293 per vehicle, according to Motorola.

A home computer may be faster in raw computing power than the electronic system on a car, but a vehicle computer can perform tricks that no Apple or Dell product can.

When you turn on a home computer, you can drink half a cup of coffee by the time the operating system boots up and the Windows or Macintosh screen appears. The same sort of software initiation occurs in a vehicle engine and transmission module, but the boot-up is instantaneous. Turn the key and the engine is ready to go. If the operating system hits a glitch, it automatically reboots and keeps the car running. Try that with Windows.

"We have very difficult requirements," said Scot Morrison, vice president and general manager of Wind River Automotive & Industrial products. "There is no 'control-alt-delete' for an anti-lock brake system. There is much more stringent testing and development for an automotive product. The industry wants very, very reliable operating systems."

Wind River, a Silicon Valley software firm, provided the software for the Mars Pathfinder and is a key supplier of operating systems for 16-bit and 32-bit computer chips used in vehicle control modules. (The most capable microprocessors for desktop computers use 32-bit chips.)

Engineers are also relying on data networks to reduce the complexity and weight of automotive wiring harnesses. A typical car has about a mile and a half of copper wire, said Bob Steele, senior staff research engineer at Packard Electric, a unit of Delphi Automotive.

Until about a decade ago, every device was hard-wired. So if you flipped a switch on the dashboard to turn a mirror, a wire had to run from the switch to the mirror. But today, switches are connected to controller chips that send digital messages to control modules.

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