The automotive industry is currently undergoing transformational changes with the emergence of electric and autonomous vehicles. Inside the vehicle, the connected car concept, enhanced driver comfort, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are demanding increasingly complex cockpit sensors and electronics. This market is expected to grow by double digits annually over the next few years, from $31.1B worldwide in 2013 to an expected $61.5B by the end of 2020¹. Major drivers include increased awareness and demand for more advanced technology by consumers, digitalization (i.e. conversion from analog to digital technology) of the vehicle, and increased consumer buying power.
Features previously only available in luxury vehicles such as smart seating, is now increasingly entering the mid-segment cars. Infotainment systems are becoming much more than an extension of the ubiquitous smartphone, and assuming the role as the “brains” of the vehicle. The humble beginnings of interior vehicle electronics to enhance driving conditions and provide comfort inside the cockpit, has expanded into four main segments — safety, comfort, user interface, and health and wellness. Among the many players in the cockpit electronics space are Robert Bosch, Alpine Electronics, Visteon Corporation, Panasonic Corporation, Continental, Denso Corporation, Harman International Industries, Delphi Automotive, Johnson Controls, Nippon Seiki, Valeo, and others. The largest automotive sensor suppliers are in 2015 were Robert Bosch, Sensata, and NXP/Freescale.
Technology advancements and lower cost sensors are driving emerging applications such as safety and security in the cabin, which accounted for 24% of the overall automotive sensor revenue in 2014². The traditional use of airbag and rollover sensors has expanded to occupancy detection, seat belt strain sensors, seat belt buckle sensors, side impact sensors, and side airbags. ADAS systems continue to penetrate into mass-market vehicles, and technologies such as driver attentiveness recognition is starting to emerge. By 2021, in-cockpit cameras that monitor the driver and passengers are expected to reach five million units³. ADAS is essentially a selection of technologies used to assist drivers in the driving process. Sensor and electronic systems are used to capture data from the environment to alert the driver about, for example, dangerous driving conditions or potential hazards. Technologies used for ADAS include sensors (e.g. radar, LIDAR, ultrasonic sensors, and cameras) that are used to provide lane departure warning, park assist, blind spot detection, distance warning, drowsiness monitoring, night vision, and adaptive cruise control.
Environmental sensors to measure temperature, relative humidity, air flow, and gas content (e.g. oxygen levels) for monitoring the internal climate in the cockpit, are increasingly being used to control advanced climate control systems and HVAC. Electronic car seats with personalized memory function have long been available in higher-end vehicles, but still 80% of car seats worldwide are manually operated. Technology advancements that enable lower-cost electronic seats are opening up new opportunities for the mid-market segment. Continental, for example, has developed a car seat platform that provides an extended range of functions, including the controls for seat adjustments, seat climate control, and massage/seat contour functionality.
Because of all of the added functionality and complexity in cockpit electronics, along with the ever-present smartphone, it is becoming increasingly important to prevent the driver from being distracted. Car companies have been integrating Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto to provide a safe extension of the smartphone to the car’s infotainment system, but with limited functionality. This allows drivers to keep their hands on the wheel while still operating smartphone functions system like playing music or making a phone call, but with restrictive access to, for example, text messages. 3D hand gesturing and voice activated controls are emerging as viable alternatives to manually operated knobs and switches to control navigation, audio, HVAC, and even smartphone and smartwatch functions. Basic heads-up displays (HUDs) appeared as early as in the 1980s to show the speedometer projected onto the windshield, while allowing the driver to keep their eyes on the road. Newer versions incorporate turn-by-turn navigation, and will soon include blind spot detection, forward collision and lane departure warnings, and other features.
The use of wearable electronic devices for monitoring health and wellness of the driver has not gone unnoticed by the automotive industry. Multiple OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers are investing in automotive biosensor technologies for measuring heart rate, pulse rate, blood oxygen content, drowsiness, attention, anxiety, and other biometrics. Advanced seating solutions are incorporating sensors to measure vitals, such as heart rate, breathing patterns, stress, and energy levels. This physiological data can be combined with other inputs, such as eye movement and blinking, facial expressions, posture, head position, and even the driver’s grip on the steering wheel to detect and counteract, for example, drowsiness. As futuristic as this may sound, companies such as Faurecia are planning to launch smart seating solutions with physiological sensors in series production over the next few years.
The cockpit of the future appears to be closer than fully autonomous driving and some of the other transformational shifts currently rippling through the automotive industry. The main focus is on innovative solutions that enhance the driving experience, as well as sensors and electronics for the modern cockpit should provide a balance of comfort, safety, and entertainment. Many of the current consumer electronic trends are quickly adopted into the cockpit, and solutions that extend the use of smartphones, smartwatches, and tablets are bridging (and closing) the gap between consumer electronics and the modern car.