electronica Virtual 2020: Automotive Conference Keynotes


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The first presenter was Dr. Wolfgang Huhn, head of light and visibility at Audi, who discussed lighting technologies enabling new comfort and safety features in the context of Car2X intelligent vehicle networking, a rapidly emerging technology where vehicles communicated directly with each other and their surroundings. Headlights became projection devices, and taillights became information devices.

Key to the functionality of the new-generation headlight was digital-matrix LED technology: a microchip with about 1.3 million micro-mirrors, each measuring only a few hundredths of a millimetre and controlled by electrostatic fields up to 5,000 times per second. The device was illuminated by three high-power LEDs. Linked to a front-facing camera, the micro-mirrors were used to reflect the LED light into exact shapes, directions, and different brightness levels to perform functions such as glare-free high beam lighting, lane lighting, orientation lighting, and marking lighting.

The next generation would enable increased safety together with more communication and more personalisation, as the technology evolved from digital micro-mirror to digital grid lighting based on addressable micro-LEDs, with improved efficiency and luminance at a reduced cost. Digital grid technology was forecast to become predominant over the next five years.

What about taillights? The enabling technology was the multi-segment digital OLED with more than 60 elements per OLED panel which, as well as displaying various dynamic hazard signals, could be personalised with different designs and selectable signatures to “impress the neighbours,” although appropriate legislation might be required before its full potential could be realised.

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The second keynote presentation came from Dr. Joachim Fetzer, executive vice president of the electric powertrain business unit at Marelli, who discussed trends in electrification and the future of the electric powertrain. The megatrends currently shaping the future of the automotive industry, and personal mobility were represented by the acronym CASE, standing for connectivity, autonomous, sharing, and electrification.

Dr. Fetzer commented that electrification continued to grow, driven by regulation and policy trends. And even COVID-19 was considered a catalyst for the transformation. Non-battery electric cars were on the decrease and personally owned autonomous cars were predicted to increase. There would be steady growth in ride-hailing autonomous cars, which would exceed the growth in shared autonomous cars. But the general shift to electric vehicles would precede both of these by around 10 years. It was significant that, whereas Chinese carmakers had previously led the investment in e-mobility, they were currently being overtaken by their European counterparts. Many innovations in electric vehicles were led by newcomers and startup companies, and there was a profusion of mergers, partnerships, and joint ventures in the industry and its supply chain.

Developments in battery technology were being driven mainly by Chinese companies. The unit price of lithium-ion batteries continued to fall, and battery-cell energy densities had almost tripled since 2010. Although lithium-iron-phosphate batteries were currently more expensive, they offered benefits of longer life and inherent safety, and not just batteries—electric motor technology was rapidly evolving towards improved efficiency and radically different construction and functionality. Together with on-board charging developments, advances in power electronics and new inverter architectures would lead to dramatic changes in electric vehicle platform design.

Industrialisation presented many challenges because of rapid advancements in design, together with falling prices. The manufacturing technology was evolving and changing quickly. With short product life cycles and a short time to achieve a return on investment compared with the traditional automotive industry, manufacturers needed to be extremely vigilant in choosing where to invest and to be prepared for unexpected changes in technology.

In Dr. Fetzer’s view, the prospect was that the shift to e-mobility would be just the first stage of the revolution. Autonomous/digitisation and ride-hailing/ride-sharing would constitute the second and third revolutions and would disrupt today’s automotive industry business model. He concluded his presentation with a question to ponder: “Globalisation, slowbalisation, technological divide—how will this influence the shift to e-mobility?” (Note:It had been predicted that 2020 would be a year of ‘slowbalisation’ in the global economy, where trade tensions continued to create challenges for global supply chains and further integration of the global economy.)

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The final keynote came from Torsten Gollewski, executive vice president of autonomous mobility systems with ZF Friedrichshafen, with an overview of markets and technologies for autonomous driving.

His initial point of reference was The European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives by the European Commission with the overarching aim of making Europe climate-neutral in 2050, which required almost all vehicles to be zero-emission to reach the target. Public transport was currently under pressure and faced many challenges, as did individual mobility with increasing traffic volume, growing environmental pollution, and rising costs.

A mobility revolution was happening in cities, with public transport prioritised and more road space being made available for pedestrians and cyclists. Diverse mobility services enabled comfortable mobility, even without private vehicle ownership, and autonomous driving complemented traditional modes of transport. Autonomous shuttles were becoming a significant market trend, with enormous growth projected in next-generation mobility.

The market was seen to be developing as a series of strategic segments: passenger cars at levels 1 and 2, commercial vehicles and industrial automation at levels 3 to 4, people and cargo movers, and ride-hailing at levels 4 to 5. OEMs and technology corporates were intensifying their relationships with startup companies in the areas of autonomous driving in commercial vehicles and ride-hailing. Companies like ZF had begun with straightforward shuttle services on dedicated lanes with their 2getthere division and planned to develop with viable business cases through public transportation on selected routes to go-anywhere robot taxis over the coming 10 years. A complete system approach was essential.

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Gollewski showed an example of a recently-commissioned Chinese autonomous trackless railway running on “virtual rails,” using a network of sensors instead of traditional tracks. Sensors on the train allowed it to monitor and measure road dimensions ahead, plot a route accordingly, and proceed autonomously. He described some of the latest developments in artificial intelligence and discussed advanced sensing and guidance systems such as frequency-modulated-continuous-wave (FMCW) LiDAR with four-dimensional capability.

Connectivity obviously played a fundamental role in autonomous vehicles. How would driverless vehicles connect to the world around them? Gollewski’s overview made reference to the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and communications technologies for dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) and cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X).

The concept of MaaS—mobility as a service—was an integration of various forms of transport services into a single mobility service accessible on demand. It represented a best-value proposition for users and a new business model for operators. Gollewski showed examples of self-driving shuttles designed to navigate autonomously through mixed traffic. A mixed-operation people-mover service without a safety driver would be in operation in the Belgian municipality of Zaventem in 2022.

I am grateful to the organisers of the electronica Automotive Conference for the opportunity to attend an outstanding keynote programme that provided a balanced insight into the future of automotive transportation from three leading authorities. We can expect some rather fundamental changes, many of which are happening right now!

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