Engaging Automotive Trends

Three experts Matt McWhinney, group business development manager, and Kirk Ulery, distribution business development manager, at Molex; Shawn Luke, technical marketing engineer, at DigiKey discus the driving factors in current automotive design and automotive trends.

Changes in the automotive industry are a hot topic. Advances in technology are driving many trends and updates in vehicles, ranging from wide-scale trends like zero-emission cars and autonomy to niche trends like miniaturization, energy storage methods and more.

Today, vehicles have more electronics than ever before. Consumers and transportation professionals alike are demanding more capabilities from their vehicles: advanced safety features, infotainment options, enhanced security, and passenger ease and comfort, among others.

Power and interconnect components are fundamental to driving vehicles—and many other modes of transportation—forward. Three automotive component experts from two industry-leading electronics companies—Shawn Luke, technical marketing manager at DigiKey, and Matt McWhinney and Kirk Ulery, business development managers at Molex—recently discussed the driving factors in current automotive design.

As automakers rush to make cars smarter and more connected, the number of electronic components needed to power them will continue to increase. In fact, according to Statista, electronics are expected to make up 50% of the cost of a new car by 2030.

“The explosion of electronic features in vehicles offers such a blank canvas,” Ulery said. “Wherever we end up in terms of electrified vehicles and other propulsion systems, electronics will be far and away one of the most key components in vehicles moving forward.”

Electrification Enables Innovation

The electrification of automobiles has opened the door to innovative new vehicle designs. Without the need to accommodate a traditional internal combustion engine, auto manufacturers have more flexibility for where to distribute batteries and charging ports, the ability to increase the amount of space for passengers or cargo, and more.

This has led to an increased number of new EV manufacturers entering the market, offering a wide variety of makes and models. At this point, many are still expensive and lack standardization across the space. However, this increased variety offers consumers more style and customization options, and the cost of the vehicles will likely decrease as technology advances and production ramps up.

“It will still be some time before there is a common layout for electric vehicle design because it’s a horse race for new technologies and innovations,” McWhinney predicted. “Designs in the automotive industry tend to be very rugged, reliable and well-proven, but in this period of rapid change, there are a lot of platforms that are still in their infancy – essentially very expensive prototypes.”

Regardless of the manufacturer, make, or model, all electric vehicles require reliable power transmission and high-speed data transmission to enable real-time, software-guided decision-making.

The advancement of microprocessors has also led to a paradigm shift in automotive design with the introduction of the software-defined vehicle platform, which manages the functionality and behavior of vehicle systems. With less reliance on hardware comes increased modularity, flexibility and connectivity – fewer parts and wires are needed to manage an extremely complex system.

We’re at an inflection point where we can’t really add any more wiring to vehicles,” Ulery explained. “Automotive has started to borrow from the computer industry, in that we now have a two-wire Ethernet standard that can run in the gigahertz range, so we’re able to reduce the amount of wiring in the vehicle.

“The 48-volt [electrical system] is another example – you can now go to smaller wires, and with zonal architectures in the software-defined vehicle, you can have one controller and those devices are all in the same bus with a single wire to connect them all. We’re going to see less copper connector content, but vehicles will be better engineered and more capable for the higher connectivity speed requirements you’ll see in future vehicles.”

It’s Electric

In Europe, the electric vehicle market is growing rapidly, as automakers and consumers aim to meet strict carbon dioxide emissions standards to avoid penalties and comply with regulations like low-emission zones. In 2023, Transport & Environment reports that European battery electric vehicle sales increased by 28%.

“Electrification is a massive game-changer,” Luke said. “People are seeing the advantages.”

Unlike in the U.S., many European countries have made significant investments in charging infrastructure across the region, offering both private and public charging stations, making electric vehicles a more viable option for most consumers. One of the primary EV enablers in European countries is the fact that the AC power standard is based on 240-volt AC throughout the region.

“I know from personal experience,” said Ulery, “that the 120-volt AC power (Level 1 charging) in North America provides roughly 5 miles of range per 1 hour of charge. A 240-volt Level 2 charger delivers over 25 miles of range per charge-hour.”

“We care a lot about using energy wisely, and interconnects can play a role in sustainability,” Luke said. “The last thing we want to do is charge a battery and have losses on the way from the onboard battery charger or dissipate extra power along the way.”

Specifying Automotive Components

Modern passenger vehicles contain an average of 80 sensors, 100 electronic units and a whole lot of wiring. Each of these components must meet a rigorous set of standards in order to perform well in the demanding environments a car experiences – weather and moisture, varying road conditions, high temperatures, vibrations and more.

“Ruggedness and reliability are huge for transportation,” Luke said. “Some of the components in vehicles need to last for decades. With long timeframes like that, it might take a long time to get a fleet ready for the changes that are happening with components, such as USB-C standards for charging cables, which consumers expect to find when traveling in a car or plane.”

There are several certifying bodies that set the standards for the parts used by auto manufacturers, including the Automotive Electronic Council (AEC) and the US Council for Automotive Research (USCAR). These organizations define performance requirements and carefully review and certify components that are approved for use in automotive settings.

Recognized globally, AEC-qualified (AECQ) components are typically high-quality, rugged and reliable parts that can take a beating on the road without sacrificing performance. Some additional considerations to keep in mind when selecting components for automotive designs include: 

“There are two sides to the coin when it comes to risk assessment and specifications for automotive components,” McWhinney said. “With the advent of not only survivability, but functionality, sometimes the specification needs to be redefined or re-upped. On the flip side, perhaps that specification is over spec and there’s too much cost built in, or it limits design flexibility. Specsmanship is increasingly important as architectures are evolving.”

“What’s great about the interconnect space is that you can make modular pieces that can be swapped out,” Luke added. “It feels so much like table stakes, but it’s underrated how important the interconnect is in automotive design.”

Above all, the experts agreed, in automotive designs, safety must come first.

“The thing we can’t over-emphasize enough is the safety aspect,” Ulery said. “When your computer doesn’t work, you simply reboot it. You can’t do that when you’re running a computing bus in your vehicle and you’re cruising at high speeds. That’s a completely extra level that we have to consider in everything we do.

“We’re always looking at the latest and greatest when it comes to components – how we can add the newest features for the best performance, and we want to do it quickly, but we’re dealing with people’s lives, so we have to make sure that the reliability is ironclad.”

The Road Ahead

Looking to the road ahead, consumers will likely continue to demand increasingly advanced features for safety and comfort, as well as electric vehicles and other modes of transit that reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

“Electrification is simply not stopping,” McWhinney said. “If anything, it’s probably speeding up.”

Throughout it all, the trend of miniaturized automotive electronic components will continue, according to McWhinney.

“The advancement of microelectronics has led to more microprocessors being installed in vehicles that are ramping toward the software-defined vehicle platform,” he said. “That doesn’t mean every element in vehicles will be dynamically controlled directly at that point by software, but the re-architecting of the control systems in that direction has vast implications.”

A larger number of microprocessors in vehicles could fuel many innovations that rely heavily on incredibly fast data processing on the edge, including autonomy. While still several years away, autonomous vehicles could be commonplace as soon as 2030. Most people are already familiar with and comfortable using semi-autonomous features like cruise control in cars or “autopilot” in planes. In the intervening years, the driver or pilot will likely still need to be engaged in the process and working.

The transportation and automotive industries will continue to drive innovation for many years to come, and suppliers like Molex and DigiKey will continue to provide the components and services necessary to accelerate that progress.

Matt McWhinney and Kirk Ulery are business development managers at Molex. As a leading global provider of connector solutions, Molex brings engineering excellence, trusted relationships, and an unparalleled commitment to quality and reliability to help customers across industries improve lives. Trusted for more than 80 years, Molex offers world-class design, manufacturing and a portfolio of 100,000+ innovative products.

Shawn Luke is a technical marketing engineer at DigiKey. DigiKey is both the leader and continuous innovator in the high service distribution of electronic components and automation products worldwide, providing more than 15.3 million components from over 2,900 quality name-brand manufacturers.

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