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DETROIT – As camera-based safety systems ramp up volumes for a growing number of vehicle programs, Sensata Technologies is ready to supply its next-generation Image Sensor, likely next year.

Vision systems are deployed in luxury vehicles today for rear-object recognition, blind-spot detection, night vision and lane-departure warning (LDW).

But those cameras merely capture an image, such as a tricycle behind an SUV, while a separate device acts on the information and alerts the driver, says Wensheng Fan, of Sensata’s Automotive Sensor Products group.

Sensata’s new IM103 Image Sensor, on display at the SAE International World Congress here, is a self-contained microcomputer with its own processor – saving packaging space, eliminating additional hardware and boosting functionality, Fan says.

And, despite the additional capability, Sensata says the system cost of its new Image Sensor is significantly less than current technologies.

A large-volume vehicle program adopting the device is expected to be announced soon, says Fan, adding that by 2010, Sensata expects to have about 1 million units on the road.

Sensata’s complementary metal-oxide semiconductor camera has 4,000 MIPS of signal processing power, which means it can perform 4 billion operations per second.

“This is a ‘smart’ camera that can process an algorithm,” Fan says. “And it has edge detection, which will help with lane-departure warning.”

LDW debuted in 2005 on the Infiniti FX cross/utility vehicle and last year was expanded to two more Infiniti models, the Q45 and M sedan.

The crash-avoidance system, supplied by Valeo SA and vision-specialist Iteris Inc., uses a small camera to recognize visible lane markings.

The camera’s signal and the vehicle’s speed are sent to the system’s microprocessing unit, which calculates the distance between the vehicle and the lane marking and the lateral velocity to the lane marking.

If the vehicle is leaving the lane, a light on the dashboard and a buzzer act as warning signals for the driver.

Iteris, a Sensata competitor, also is marketing the technology in the heavy-truck sector.

Dale Sogge, vision systems manager for Sensata, says LDW systems currently in production “barely have enough processing power” to handle LDW functionality.

But he says Sensata’s Image Sensor can perform multiple tasks simultaneously, including LDW, sign detection, adaptive forward lighting and adaptive cruise control.

“We’ve given the system enough processing horsepower to do them all,” Sogge says.

Another advantage is the Image Sensor’s ability to adapt quickly to dramatically changing light conditions, such as when entering or exiting a tunnel.

He says the Image Sensor will play a role as brake suppliers such as Continental Automotive Systems, Robert Bosch GmbH and TRW Automotive pursue “active safety” technologies that mitigate the severity of collisions or help drivers avoid them altogether.

But such systems will require more processing power than Sensata’s Image Sensor currently has, and Sogge suggests the possibility of an additional co-processor as a fix.

Sensata’s customers for this technology could be Tier 1 system integrators (such as Valeo) or the auto makers directly. The customer would write the software to run on the Image Sensor.

Headquartered in Attleboro, MA, Sensata operated for many years as a division of Texas Instruments and has been a long-time supplier of pressure and temperature sensors for automotive applications.

A year ago, Texas Instruments sold the operation to Bain Capital LLC.

Sensata remains focused on automotive sensors and debuts at this SAE event with a new approach to occupant-weight sensing in compliance with FMVSS 208, the U.S. legislation that requires “smart” airbags.

A prototype seat on display at the show here employs four weight sensors, one placed at each connection point between the seat and chassis.

But those sensors cannot differentiate between a human and a heavy inanimate object.

So the Sensata technology also employs a fifth piezo-electric sensor placed in the seat cushion that senses the frequency response of a human and can determine the relative position of the passenger.

Gathering such information, and determining whether an occupant is wearing a seatbelt, is critical as the airbag controller decides whether to deploy the airbag in the event of a collision.

Sensata says a customer is evaluating the technology for a potential 2009 product launch. The piezo-electric sensor costs about the same as a conventional weight sensor.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com