Future Electronics – Transportation trends: the disruptive effects of autonomy, connectivity and electrification

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Several trends are combining in the transportation industry to blur the lines of public transport and traditional automotive segments, with phrases such as ‘Smart Mobility’ now being discussed in a more holistic way. Many of the top semiconductor companies already have specific strategies and component roadmaps to address this new movement, utilising more and more sophisticated electronics to increase awareness and intelligence of our transportation.

Where once the most important systems in a car were mechanical – the engine and drivetrain, steering and suspension, brakes – now the value in a car is not so much in its ability to get people from A to B as in what it can do for them during the journey: how it can entertain them, how it can keep them informed, connected and productive. How, in fact, can it take over the task of driving so that the driver – or perhaps the ‘user’ – may be free to do something other than grip the steering wheel?

The effect on automotive OEMs is that value is shifting away from traditional technologies such as the internal combustion engine, and towards other and new technologies which would not in the past have even been classed as ‘automotive’, such as wireless communications, high-speed networking, optical and radar sensing, and of course software.

The trend in the automotive industry is epitomised by the news that in September, a fleet of Ford Fusion cars, adapted for autonomous driving by Ford, started conveying users of the Uber car-hailing service around Pittsburgh in the US. While an Uber engineer sits in the driver’s seat as a safety back-up, he or she is not driving: the car drives itself.

It is hardly surprising that Ford has stopped referring to itself as a car manufacturer and is now simply in the mobility business. Or that the top three destinations for the $5.7bn of venture capital invested in the transportation sector in 2015 were not automotive manufacturers but start-up service providers: Uber, GrabTaxi and BlaBlaCar.

It’s clear that the transportation sector is changing incredibly fast, and that automotive systems OEMs are no longer limited to the automotive sector, but in the ‘smart mobility’ industry. The key trends that OEM’s and designers should now seek to profit from are autonomy, connectivity and electrification.

Adaptive braking, blind-spot detection and collision avoidance are already common features in new vehicles. The implementation of existing and new sensing technologies, such as the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) laser sensors used in Google’s self-driving cars, will pave the way to full autonomy within the space of just a few years.

In connectivity, Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communications enable active safety systems which will reduce the incidence of fatalities and injuries on the roads. In addition to improving safety, V2I communication will underpin Intelligent Transport System (ITS) management. This offers great opportunities to makers of integrated communications modules and antenna systems.

One of the benefits of ITS is improved efficiency and reduced congestion.

Electrification is the other main way in which the transportation sector will reduce its environmental impact: an electric drivetrain is more powerful, compact, and efficient than the fossil-fuelled alternative, and produces zero local emissions. Investments in large-scale battery production combined with disruptive innovations from emerging battery companies are dramatically reducing the cost of energy storage. As a result, more segments of the transportation sector will give up market share to electric drivetrain technology.

At the heart of each of these trends is innovation in electronics: as many of the components featured in this issue of FTM show, the question of how we become mobile in a smart way is being answered today by the electronics industry.

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