How Are Autonomous Vehicles Changing Microcontroller Use?
The automotive MCU sector has seen steady growth as cars become equipped with more advanced technology. MCU designers need to adapt to keep up.
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The microcontroller industry is growing rapidly as electronics manufacturing booms, and some subsectors are experiencing more dramatic changes than others. Microcontrollers for automotive applications are rising in demand and undergoing a considerable shift in what they must offer.
The automotive microcontroller unit (MCU) sector has seen steady growth for some time as cars have become more technologically complex. Now, the rise of assisted driving features and the eventual emergence of fully autonomous vehicles is reshaping the industry. MCU designers and manufacturers must adapt to these changes to remain competitive.
Demand for Sensor Fusion
Microcontrollers for automotive applications are getting increasingly complex. The rising demand for sensor fusion from autonomous driving functionality is one of the most significant drivers of this complexity.
Many conventional MCUs process information from a single input, which doesn’t work for self-driving applications. Autonomous vehicles use a combination of cameras, LiDAR, radar, and other sensors to navigate. MCUs must combine these inputs to provide the machine-learning models driving these vehicles with enough context to make safe, accurate decisions.
Sensor fusion requires a higher standard of processing power than many MCUs offer. Consequently, microcontroller designers must focus on more powerful, multi-input MCUs. The sooner they can provide reliable, sensor fusion-capable chips, the faster the lucrative self-driving vehicle market can take off.
Increased Need for Redundancy
Automotive MCUs also need redundancy, something most other microcontrollers lack. MCUs are relatively simple by design, as small form factors and low power consumption are key selling points for many electronics. By contrast, vehicle applications require real-world reliability more than anything else, spurring demand for redundancy.
Without redundancy, an MCU failure could cause assisted driving features not to recognize incoming hazards. Given the severity of traffic accidents, that risk is too significant to rely on a single system, even if it’s highly reliable. Consequently, mission-critical MCUs need at least one layer of redundancy to ensure if one processor fails, it won’t affect the car’s performance.
Creating passive backup systems is the most straightforward way to provide this redundancy. However, any delay between one system failing and another starting up could mean life or death in an emergency. MCU manufacturers must design chips with parallel redundancy, where two or more processors run simultaneously to prevent gaps.
Security Becomes Paramount
The rise of microcontrollers for automotive applications also increases the need for on-device security. Cars with more connectivity features become vulnerable to cyberattacks. Cybersecurity-related recalls have already affected 1.4 million vehicles, and MCUs are vital in addressing these risks.
Automotive MCUs must support encryption, ideally multiple forms, to meet various automakers’ unique security standards. Similarly, microcontrollers need secure boot processes to ensure they only run the code they should. Secure over-the-air (OTA) update technology, such as methods for verifying MCUs’ identity and authenticating incoming updates, is also necessary.
Cybersecurity is a growing concern in virtually all electronics applications, so the industry will move in this direction. Still, automotive microcontrollers face particularly urgent security needs, given the consequences of an effective hack. That will drive security-first chip design processes throughout the sector.
A Move Away from MCUs
Automotive MCUs will become increasingly complex as manufacturers implement these changes. Eventually, that will push the industry away from MCUs as a category in favor of more multifunctional alternatives.
While MCUs’ ease of implementation and low power needs are ideal for automakers, their processing capabilities are not. Microcontrollers only read one line of code at once, whereas a field-programmable gate or grid array (FPGA) can manage multiple parallel inputs. As cars become more advanced, they’ll likely follow smartphones’ example and favor systems-on-a-chip (SOCs).
This means another shift in focus for electronics designers and manufacturers. Instead of designing multiple MCUs to work in tandem, they should emphasize more consolidated but powerful and feature-rich SOCs. This adjustment may make these components more complex and challenging to implement, but they provide more reliability for autonomous vehicles’ real-world applications.
Higher Resilience Requirements
The growing prevalence of automotive microcontrollers will also lead to more resilient MCUs. Many microcontrollers today are sensitive pieces of equipment, but that doesn’t work in some automotive applications. Connected cars place sensors and controllers in their engines, near the wheels and more, requiring them to be hardier.
Microcontrollers themselves won’t be exposed to the elements, so waterproofing and dirt resistance aren’t pressing concerns. Extreme temperatures, shocks, and vibrations are another matter. MCU manufacturers must ensure automotive chips can withstand high engine heat and maintain peak performance despite physical shocks from the road.
Resilience standards this high may be unusual for manufacturers accustomed to household electronics applications. However, embracing this shift across all use cases will open the door to more versatile, multipurpose microcontrollers.
Growing Supply Chain Concerns
Microcontrollers for automotive applications highlight the need for supply chain restructuring. Semiconductor shortages led to production shortfalls of 9.5 million light-duty vehicles in 2021. While the automotive industry and its electronics partners are starting to come out of this disruption, it emphasizes the need for future change.
These automotive issues unveiled cracks in supply chains across the electronics components market. Chip production is too centralized. The sector’s over-reliance on a few large manufacturing hubs creates risky single points of failure that could cause substantial disruptions in the right scenario.
MCU manufacturers must adapt by reshaping their supply chains. Distributed sourcing and real-time tracking technologies are a must to prevent disruption and mitigate it more effectively. Shortening lead times and increasing safety stocks will also help.
Microcontrollers for Automotive Applications Will Change the Industry
Microcontrollers for automotive applications were once comparatively niche, but that’s no longer the case. Demand for applicable MCUs will skyrocket as driverless functions and wireless connectivity become more common in cars. That growth will change the microcontroller industry as a whole.
MCU manufacturers must pay attention to these trends. Adapting to the automotive industry’s evolving needs will ensure continued business in the future and even help serve other markets where new requirements overlap. Understanding how end users’ needs are shifting is key to remaining relevant.
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