Jeffrey Owens is the man in the middle, toiling in a byway of the electronics market that, well, gets no respect. Chip makers caught up in frenzied markets like cell phones and Internet appliances don't pay much mind to supplying automakers' needs, said Owens, the general director of engineering at Delphi Automotive's Delco Electronic Systems (Kokomo, Ind.). And the automakers themselves are often less than enthusiastic about the digitalization of their industry.
"Some carmakers still consider cars a mechanical product, and electronics are just a necessary evil," he said, although "others embrace them fully."
In short, said Owens, carmakers are moving slowly on standards that could help grow the market for systems made by Delphi and others, while many semiconductor makers turn a deaf ear to requests for highly reliable parts. "But when we get to safety, literally everyone we're talking to embraces the safety aspect," he added. "Safety is opening a lot of doors."
Auto electronics wasn't always the invisible sector. IC makers used to get excited about the huge volumes of this market, and happily complied with requests to alter parts for each automaker. But the electronics boom has changed that equation, as volumes for computers, cell phones and other gizmos exploded during the '90s. Now, vendors like Delphi must be content to pick up the crumbs left by those industries.
"The silicon curve used to be something we influenced heavily," Owens said. "Now we're riding along. The digital shrink path heavily influences everything we do, including our work in software. Vehicles now have over a megabyte of software. That's four times what was on one of the early space shuttles. Ten years ago, an expensive car had less than 100 kbytes of software."
One of the key challenges for Delphi, untethered from parent General Motors for just two years, and its suppliers is to meet the harsh demands of the road. Chips ride in cars that might travel from Alabama to Alaska 10 years after they're built. Commercial chips are specified at comparatively mild temperatures, and their lifetimes can diminish dramatically when they undergo testing at more extreme temperatures. In some areas, like flash memory, that poses a problem.
"For the most part, we try to design with off-the-shelf components. But at our temperature demands, performance is often different," Owens said. "If the automaker wants 100 write/erase cycles for flash, and the supplier says you only get 30 at automotive temperatures, getting to 100 cycles will be difficult. Some of the carmakers will go with 30, but others will wait to see 100 cycles before they certify flash, which everyone wants so you can change software several times before production and even after the car goes out. If they can't get 100 cycles, they may go with ROM and all that that implies."
Despite the gap between what automotive engineers want and what semiconductor makers will supply, the number of processors in the average car continues to rise. And notwithstanding the colossal failure a few years back of the talking car the auto industry's Ishtar voice recognition is the next must-have technology. With PCs, navigation systems, e-mail and Internet hook-ups planned for the cars of tomorrow, voice synthesis and recognition are considered necessities for hands-free operation.
Voice is "a nice way to control non-safety aspects. I won't say it's a breakthrough, but it's a big enabling technology," said Owens, who has been kicking around the automotive industry pretty much forever. He grew up in Kokomo, and went to Motown to earn a combination ME/EE degree from the General Motors Institute, which is now Kettering University (Flint, Mich.).
The auto industry moves a lot faster now than it did when Owens graduated in 1973, but it's still a horse and buggy compared to the warp speed of semiconductors. That's another big concern for Delphi designers.
"Our biggest challenge is to anticipate where technology will be when the product comes out," Owens said. "Technology has changed a lot, and 48 months is no longer the norm. Most car manufacturers have pilot programs significantly less than 48 months long, going to 24 or 36."
Though much of the industry is absorbed with putting computers and other entertainment and productivity gear in the cockpit, as with some 2001 model-year Cadillacs, Owens is equally inspired by drive-by-wire technologies, which appear ready to replace mechanical steering, throttle and braking techniques.
"Obviously, we've got concerns about taking mechanics out of the loop," he said. "There are architectural concerns, fault-tolerance concerns. Probably the thing that will accelerate it the fastest will be fault-tolerant processors, though whether dual-core processors will make a big impact is still open to question. Power electronics is also key. There, the thermal-management equation is paramount."
Multiplexing and networking have been talked about as the way to integrate various subsystems for years, but acceptance is still limited. That could be changing now, as carmakers and auto buyers put more emphasis on safety.
"Integration is really exciting. If everything plays in concert, you really get the best of all worlds," Owens said. "We're doing a fair amount in that, but everything depends on the appetite of the carmakers. We don't want to just look at ABS antilock-braking systems, air bags and other things we're starting to treat them as one thing."
Multiplexing is just one of the areas where electronics specialists like Delphi keep pushing automakers to adopt standards. Yet most carmakers, particularly the Big Three, feel standards take away some of their control. Of the few electronic standards that have been adopted, many have been altered to meet the specific need of various carmakers. Most carmakers have joined the Automotive Multimedia Interface Consortium, but it will take time to determine if AMIC can craft the single, uniform standard that many are hoping for.
"We're moving very slowly to a common set of expectations. I think it will be very difficult to get everyone together on the same standard," Owens said. "In software, we clearly need to get a common set of standards, especially in the areas AMIC is working on." Doing so "will provide us an opportunity to give automakers more flexibility and let us be more efficient with our schemes and software architectures."
European automakers have taken the lead in adopting standards, he said, particularly in telematics, the science of getting wireless data to and from the vehicle. "Europe has one standard, GSM, and the U.S. has three. Look at how much slower we have adopted telematics."
If and when telematics becomes more popular, it's going to tax the driver. "With all the information bombarding the driver, the question is how to handle it all safely," said Owens. "We're trying to do that with voice recognition and heads-up displays."
With Delphi into its second year of independence from GM, Owens' "biggest surprise is how much of a barrier the lack of independence was. I didn't know that there were several carmakers who would not do business with us as a GM unit; it was their formal policy. Now that we are unfettered, we have sales growth with OEMs that we never anticipated."