"Social Device" Special Interview

The contents were published from July 2015 to February 2016 on"Nikkei Technology Online", the engineering information website run by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc., and reprinted with the author's permission.

The Evolving Relationship between Cars and Society, Driven by Electronics

Automobiles are evolving faster than ever with advances in information and communications technology (ICT) and electronics, including power train electrification and autonomous driving. And their relationship to society is changing, too. Tooru Futami, Expert Leader in the Research Planning Dept., Mobility Service Laboratory, Nissan Research Center of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. of Japan discussed the future of automobiles and society with Director Jun Iida, LSI Product Development Headquarters, ROHM Co., Ltd. of Japan.


 Automotive electronics has made enormous advances in the last few years. It used to be that automotive electronics meant electronic control systems on the mechanisms, audio-visual equipment, and infotainment systems. Recently, though, a range of advanced electronics systems is showing up on automotive platforms, utilizing information and image processing, such as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). As a result, many electronics manufacturers are prioritizing the automotive market as a key growth field.

Tooru Futami
Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.
Engineering Director Research Planning Dept., Nissan Research Center

 The basic actions of an automobile are run, turn, and stop, and electrification began with stop in the form of braking systems. Hydraulic brakes have been replaced by regenerative braking systems using motors to convert braking energy into electrical energy. Brake-by-wire technology is also coming into use, with brakes controlled by computers and actuators.

 The second basic action is turning; steering, in other words. Here as well hydraulics have been replaced by motor systems, and now steer-by-wire technology is entering practical use. With the rise of commercial electric (EV) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), the final action-drive-is also transitioning to motorized or electronic operation. Once that process is complete, all of the basic functions of the automobile will be handled by motors or electronically.


 Activity to implement information processing-driven functions in automobiles is generally described as making cars "intelligent." New wireless communication technologies have made it possible for automobiles to connect to communication networks, and I think that will further accelerate this process.


 The first information processing systems in automobiles, such as car navigation systems, appeared in the 1990s. They required programs and memory an order larger than those used in the electronic control units (ECU) controlling the basic run-turn-stop functions. These new systems were the "cerebrum" of the vehicle, and the ECU was the "cerebellum." These days the cerebrum and the cerebellum operate independently of each other, and new technologies are developing to link them together, such as autonomous driving.


 Many of the various systems making up the automobile are motorized or electrified, and in that sense I think automobiles and electronic devices are evolving together. To continue to meet the requirements of evolving vehicles, demanding more and more ECUs, Rohm is developing new products with reduced dark current and anti-cranking measures.


 In luxury cars, onboard computing power is about the same as five standard personal computers. EVs are packed with electronic control technology, and electronics account for about 70% of the entire system. They are really just computers with wheels!

Shift to Motors and Electronics Accelerates from the 1980s


 I've been involved in a wide range of automotive electronics over the years. I began working for Nissan in the early 1980s, and my first assignment was semiconductor device development. Many semiconductor manufacturers then were competing to develop new fabrication technology, trying to develop ever-finer chip geometry to achieve both cost and performance. Automobiles, however, demand chips with superlative environmental resistance. They don't necessarily require state-of-the-art photolith. I was working on automotive semiconductor devices jointly with a semiconductor manufacturer.

 My next assignment was developing automotive electronics such as airbag systems, xenon-lamp lights, navigation systems, and electronic-control 4-wheel drive systems, among others. We created a lot of the pioneering systems that are the ancestors of the automotive electronics in use today.

 In the 1990s, as mobile telephony began to spread, we began working on automotive ICT, and at about the same time began work on making vehicles more intelligent. From about 2000, I started working on EVs.

Jun Iida
ROHM Co., Ltd.
Director LSI Product Development Headquarters

 I've been involved in large-scale integrated (LSI) chip design since I began working at Rohm. Rohm has been supplying the automotive market with resistors, its founding product, for over 30 years, but with integrated circuits (IC) we didn't just follow every developing trend in automotive electronics. Instead we expanded our technologies and capabilities on a step-by-step basis.

 In other words, instead of jumping right into the run-turn-stop application field where reliability requirements are so stringent, we began developing products for the infotainment field, such as car navigation systems. That was about 20 years ago. About a decade ago we expanded our range of automotive products to include power windows, door mirror open/close systems, air conditioning, and other electrical systems on the car body. More recently we are utilizing silicon carbide (SiC), a next-generation material, in high-efficiency ICs, and developing new solutions for EV and HEV powertrains.

 In the automotive field, Rohm is especially strong in analog semiconductors, such as the circuits driving motors and actuators, and devices for interface circuits handling analog signals output by diverse sensors. Thanks to our vertically integrated production stance, which provides both high quality and stable supply, and our cutting-edge BiCDMOS process technology, revenues have increased by 15% in the last decade, and now account for about 26% of the firm's sales in the automotive sector.


 I think analog semiconductor technology will become increasingly important in the future. Autonomous driving, for example, consists of three major processes: recognition, judgment, and operation. Recognition depends on sensing external information, operation controls the mechanical system, and both handle analog signals.


 The keys to high precision in sensing are the sensors, and their peripheral analog circuits. Autonomous driving and other systems utilizing sensing technologies are being built into automobiles, and our expertise in analog semiconductor technology can make a significant contribution to automobile evolution.

Electronics Holds the Key to the Automobiles of Tomorrow


 Automobiles today face four key issues, namely energy, global warming, accidents, and traffic congestion. If the number of cars on the road continues to rise without resolving these problems, vehicles will eventually come to threaten human existence. Many people are already worried about just this, and a movement is beginning, primarily in the industrialized nations, away from automobiles.

 I think these problems, however, can be resolved through three major initiatives.

 First, motorizing the power train. With motors it will become possible to utilize renewable energy resources, such as wind, water, and solar power.

 Second, intelligent vehicles. Autonomous driving will no doubt reduce accidents and congestion, and if high-level self-driving technology can be developed it will be possible for a large number of cars to drive together while maintaining spacing. That will make it possible to fit the most possible vehicles in a given length of road.

 Third, connected cars, automobiles that can tap a variety of services through a full-time information network link. This will enable an environment so that any number of cars can reach their destinations on time.

 All three of these initiatives depend on electronics technology.


 One crucial goal for semiconductor manufacturers is slashing energy consumption. I mentioned earlier that an automobile has the equivalent of five personal computers on board, and with vehicles that get their energy from batteries, like EVs and HEVs, increasing use of electronics and motors will mean it takes more power to get anywhere, and the per-charge range will drop. Unless something is done to change the situation, that will seriously degrade their utility and product value. It may become impossible to continue adopting electronics and motors unless the power consumed by the circuits can be significantly reduced.

 That may sound like I'm going too far when it comes to system specifications, but I really think slashing energy consumption is essential. Reducing dissipation in automotive semiconductor devices over the last few years has required considerable technical expertise.

 Rohm's vertically integrated production stance, handling the entire process in-house, ensures that design is optimized throughout the entire sequence from development to manufacturing, yielding the most energy-efficient design possible.


 Automobiles need to be improved continuously, and being able to handle the entire process from design to manufacturing in-house, and respond rapidly, is a major advantage.

 Automotive technology is at a turning point. I think significant technical advancement is coming, probably with a big step forward at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. I don't think the Tokyo Olympics and the technical innovation will be followed by a period of economic growth this time, however. The automotive industry will have to explore the potentials of new businesses on the global scale, searching for new interactions between automobiles and society.

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