Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – As the automotive industry copes with ever-stringent emissions and fuel economy regulations, Hella KGaA Hueck & Co. is touting incremental improvements in electronics technologies as a means to reduce carbon-dioxide output from vehicles.

Part of a broad theme overriding this year’s SAE World Congress here, the German supplier says the small improvements provided by its advanced lighting and other electronic components can add up to large reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions in an auto maker’s fleet.

In addition, these improvements will provide added value to a consumer base that is becoming increasingly savvy with various electronic systems and the power they consume.

“The behavior of customers is changing and they are becoming more aware of energy consumption,” says Ralf Voss, executive vice president-automotive electronics. “There is a need for a more sophisticated energy-management system.”

For a lighting supplier such as Hella, that means increased use of light-emitting-diode technology that consumes less power and is more easily packaged than conventional halogen or high-intensity discharge systems.

LED lighting is common in many automotive applications, particularly in taillights, but the first production installations for headlamps only now are appearing on vehicles in the U.S. and Europe. These initial applications are expensive and not as efficient as they could be, Hella says, relegating them to high-end vehicles, such as the Cadillac Escalade Platinum, that can absorb the cost of the technology.

“LEDs are at a very early stage but will replace conventional lamps in a few years,” says Martin Fischer, President-Hella Electronics, noting improvements in weight reduction, light output and cost are expected as more applications enter the market.

Headlights using LEDs currently draw more power than HID units, while also generating more heat that must be managed through integrated cooling systems, he adds.

However, a vehicle with HID-front and LED-rear lighting still consumes about 40% less power than a system using all halogen lamps.

All this plays on emissions because the drain from electronic components affects fuel economy, which is tied directly to a vehicle’s CO2 output.

But lighting is far from the only source for electronic optimization, with electronic-control unit consolidation, improved sensors and greater system integration also high on the company’s list.

Among Hella’s CO2-reducing highlights are automatic start-stop systems that shut off the engine when a vehicle is stationary (BMW 1-Series in Europe), as well as intelligent battery sensors that work to prevent total battery discharge and optimize the charging process.

Also key are electric vacuum pumps (Cadillac CTS, STS), which replace belt-driven mechanical units and can be turned on only when vacuum draw is needed, such as during engine warm-up.

In addition, adaptive cruise control (Chrysler 300) can reduce CO2 by smoothly regulating vehicle speeds, Hella says, but also can be networked with other systems such as lighting for improved overall functionality.

With the integration of ACC and advanced lighting, improved safety and value can be transferred to the consumer in the form of camera- and/or radar-guided active headlights, as well as intelligent high beams that turn off in the face of oncoming traffic.

“The consumer is easily convinced (to adopt new technologies) if value is provided without sacrificing performance,” Voss says. “But it must be a team effort (among all elements of the industry) to realize energy conservation goals.”

Several other electronics experts echoed this sentiment at SAE, with calls for coordinated efforts to address challenges, such as greater amounts of electronic hardware in vehicles and the heat they generate, as well as massive increases in control software and the need for programmers to create it.

“Added functionality (of vehicle electronics) mainly will come from better connecting networks, rather than adding components,” says Wolfgang Ziebart, president and CEO of Infineon Technologies AG, noting the more networked the systems are, the more networked the value and supply chains must be.

But the cooperation must extend beyond the interaction between suppliers and auto makers to include less-conventional industry players, such as Microsoft Corp., Google Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Inc. that are becoming more integrated in vehicle infotainment systems.

An open dialogue with government regulators also must take place, and more focus needs to fall on the workings of development consortiums such as the Automotive Open System Architecture (Autosar), which is creating a standardized electronic framework for interchangeable vehicle ECUs.

With some high-end vehicles featuring up to 80 ECUs, overloaded networks and too many user interfaces, “we must break the ‘one function, one ECU’ standard (of thinking),” Ziebart says. “We must optimize one level above just hardware.”

Despite advancements such as hardware-in-the-loop simulation (HILS), which greatly reduces software development time, the need for additional lines of code continues to grow as consumers demand more features in their cars.

“Software use in vehicles has increased 50 times each year across the industry over the last 20 years,” says Toyohei “Tony” Nakajima, senior chief engineer and senior manager for Honda R&D Co. Ltd., adding system commonality and a focus on the consumer will be the keys to success in the future.

Ultimately, the goal is to have a car that is “always on” and can connect with other vehicles, the traffic infrastructure and personal electronic devices of customers, says Helmut Matschi, president of the interiors division at Continental AG’s VDO Automotive unit.

“Consumers want safer, better networked and more-affordable vehicles,” he says, noting 90% of automotive innovations currently are based on electronic and software advancements.

“It’s paradoxical,” adds Paul Hansen, president and publisher of The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics. “It’s a hard market (for auto makers and suppliers), but the growth in electronics is opening up new opportunities for many others in the industry.”

msutton@wardsauto.com