For Cars, the Future is Here

From in-vehicle infotainment systems and advanced driver-assistance systems (and the standards that support them) to the self-driving car, embedded automotive systems never looked so cool.


Some of the most exciting advances in embedded automotive systems are happening today, with plenty more in the nascent stages. With advanced sensor and user interface technologies coming out of the consumer arena, along with new connectivity standards and safety regulations, the stage is set. Maybe not for the flying car that George Jetson rode to work—just yet—but for a wide range of capabilities that will also drive societal expectations. We have a great panel of experts here to give their insight on where embedded automotive technologies are going—and what’s still needed. Many thanks to Andy Gryc, senior automotive product marketing manager, QNX Software Systems; Dan Loop, business development manager, automotive infotainment processors Freescale; Davide Santo, ADAS microcontroller product manager, Freescale; Warren Kurisu, director of product management, Mentor Graphics Embedded Systems Division; and Rob Valiton, senior vice president and general manager, Automotive, Aerospace and Memory Business Units, Atmel Corporation.

EECatalog: The buzz today is the in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system and its ability to provide a smartphone-like experience to the driver and passengers. What technologies are still likely to find their way into the automobile’s IVI system—and what technologies will never be appropriate for the “connected car”?

Andy Gryc, QNX Software Systems: For front seat applications while the vehicle is in motion, just about the only prohibitions would be games (excepting auto-centric games like “beat your fuel mileage”), video conferencing, and news tickers. Just about everything else—apps or technology—is possible, and could be adapted to a safe in-vehicle experience with appropriate modifications to display and user interaction. Even intensely engaging graphical experiences can be provided while the vehicle is in park or for rear-seat. NFC and augmented reality have been demoed; QR code reading and fingerprint recognition have reasonable applications.

Dan Loop, Freescale: Vehicle OEMs will ultimately determine the answers to these questions based on their view on the value of the technology to the driver and its impact on driver and passenger safety. As we move toward a higher penetration of connected vehicles, the amount of technology available for integration increases dramatically and we will see new vehicle-specific functions emerge that one may never see in a smartphone. This gives a wide array of technology options for the OEM to align with their brand and each vehicle’s value proposition. Ultimately, this drives the need for flexible and scalable solutions in the IVI space. What one OEM may see as valuable another may see as not appropriate, yet similar hardware and software may be utilized in both systems. Also, as we move into an era of autonomous vehicles we are likely to see that technologies that were once viewed as not appropriate become acceptable in certain autonomous driving situations, which will only intensify the need for more flexible and scalable IVI platforms.

Warren Kurisu, Mentor Graphics: The technologies that will work their way into vehicles will reflect key characteristics of smartphones, namely: media, connectivity and application availability. Of course, media-rich systems are already commonplace. The abundance of accessible and inexpensive connectivity options such as Wi-Fi, 4G/LTE, GPS, satellite and others will become increasingly integrated in the vehicle and pull in technologies for app store access, firmware over-the-air updates and web- and cloud-based technologies. Of course, with connectivity come security concerns. Commercial hardware-based technologies such as ARM TrustZone will be required, as will software complements such as type-1 hypervisors. These technologies together can help to create secure zones within the system, and minimize attack surfaces by keeping applications within those zones secure from each other and from attacks via external connections. Broadly speaking, anything that isn’t efficient in terms of space, weight, power and cost—or creates unmitigated security, safety or driver-distraction issues—will not be appropriate for the connected car. With that qualification, given the increasing pace of technology advancement, it’s difficult to definitively exclude any specific technology from eventually making it into the car if it serves an important function.

Rob Valiton, Atmel Corporation: There are a wide variety of technologies that will continue to find their way into IVI systems. Undoubtedly, capacitive touchscreens will be one of the fastest-growing. The current dominant touchscreen technology in automotive is resistive. However, resistive technology does not allow consumers to interact with their car the way they interact with their smartphone, tablet and Ultrabook, resulting in a frustrated user. The superior user interface, including common gesture recognition utilizing pinch/zoom and swiping motions is enabled by the adoption of capacitive technology.

Some newer features such as hover and proximity may also have the potential to create a less-distracted user environment than what exists today. Hover and proximity can be used in combination to ensure that the drivers’ eyes stay on the road for as long as possible and changing basic setting does not require several menu changes.

In terms of connecting devices in the car, Bluetooth has traditionally been viewed as the ultimate solution in the automotive sector, with Wi-Fi technology being closely examined as an alternative. Automobiles today allow users to stay connected to their smartphones in a hands-free manner, meaning users can stay connected while they are in-transit from their home to the office.

It is somewhat difficult to identify specific technologies that aren’t appropriate for the “connected car,” whether now or in the future. Clearly, the connected car is only limited by one’s imagination and safety concerns.

EECatalog: What standards are needed to unify the IVI experience between onboard systems and the products the consumer connects to the car?

Gryc, QNX Software Systems: USB and Bluetooth right now provide much of what is needed for a “standard” experience. For higher-quality experiences, a transport (USB 3.0, WiFi/WiFi Direct, BTLE) and a protocol (H.264, Airplay, Miracast, MirrorLink, DLNA) are needed.

Loop, Freescale: Due to the rapid pace of innovation in consumer devices, the automotive market struggles to stay aligned with consumer device connectivity. While creating standards will certainly streamline the introduction of connectivity technologies into vehicles, the key ingredient is for the big consumer technology companies such as Apple and Google to have a more open dialog with the auto industry in order to close on standards that can be adopted at a quicker pace or even allow older vehicles to be upgraded in the field. This will ultimately provide a better in-vehicle user experience with new devices that typically have a lifespan of one to two years versus a vehicle lifetime of three to five-plus years. While we are now seeing an emergence of new smartphone integration technologies such as Apple’s iOS in the car, a deeper commitment is needed to keep the standards stable and supported in future devices to account for the disconnect between consumer technology and vehicle life spans.

Kurisu, Mentor Graphics: There are a few perspectives from which to address this question. For manufacturers who are not seeking to differentiate for high margins, a simple standard to mirror the smartphone on the IVI system is good enough. A good example is the Connected Car Consortium’s MirrorLink technology. For higher-end models, delivering a branded, differentiated solution is paramount. One such standard could be HTML5, which could allow applications to be run locally, on the smartphone or in the cloud, yet allow the OEM to deliver a branded user experience in the vehicle. Broadly speaking, GENIVI as a standard is important as it continues to consider and create projects related to consumer electronics technologies such as application frameworks, Qt graphics, HTML5 and app stores.

Valiton, Atmel: There are a number of standards to consider for unification of the IVI experience between on-board systems and connectable consumer products. Standards range from security and software considerations, to technology such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Standards identified by technology standards bodies, such as the Bluetooth SIG or Wi-Fi Alliance, are required in order to unify the IVI experience on-board, specifically in relation to consumer products. These are required to ensure a smooth and seamless connection, as well as a positive experience for the end user. Firmware specifications are identified within a car to ensure connectivity is established flawlessly. In addition, continued development of standards such as those being developed by the Connected Car Consortium will ensure that drivers can continue to control their devices using existing in-vehicle equipment.

Software considerations are also important. Since the infotainment lifecycle of an automobile is typically much longer than in the home, future cars must consider software standards along with the ability to upgrade.

EECatalog: What technologies—in the car, terrestrially and wirelessly—are needed to connect the car to roadway and municipal infrastructures, as well as to make vehicle-to-vehicle communications a reality?

Gryc, QNX Software Systems: V2V/V2I capabilities are usually envisioned through DSRC or WiMax, however, these technologies and their implementation for any V2V or V2I system will require governmental regulation to proliferate and are still likely years out. The most likely short-term form of V2V would be through an LTE carrier network—the vehicle contacts a cloud-based “big data” service to report its position (anonymously), and any other connected vehicles can get aggregate crowd-based information like traffic density, road speeds or localized weather.

Loop, Freescale: As vehicles establish themselves as another node on the ubiquitous Internet of Things (IoT), multiple data pipes both fat and thin will become critical to future driver experiences. We are already seeing the emergence of 4G connectivity for data and in-vehicle hotspots, and OEMs will find new ways to monetize this fat data pipe into vehicles. V2I will rely on thin pipes similar to what is emerging in IoT sensor networks that are already being deployed by municipalities to streamline management of utility infrastructures. As V2V emerges, we will likely see similar technologies employed with specific tweaks to ensure quality of service of communication between moving vehicles. Within the vehicle, consumer technologies such as USB, HDMI and 802.11ac will dominate as they will be the most visible and valuable to the vehicle purchaser. The key question in the incorporation of all of these technologies is how intrusive they will be to the vehicle owner, as privacy concerns will rise as information is routed over networks that can ultimately move data from the car to the cloud.

Kurisu, Mentor Graphics: GPS combined with dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) standards, including 802.11p, is very promising. The allure of DSRC is that localized networks of vehicles communicating with each other and the infrastructure are inherently more efficient and real-time than a systemic, Internet-based broadcast of notifications and status. Interestingly, I don’t think the problem is so much the technology, but rather that for such a system to be truly effective, the standards would need to be compatible internationally, and all vehicles would need to connect to the network. As an example, consider a simple efficiency use case. If my car were connected to the traffic light grid and was able to exploit that connection to avoid red lights, I might not be able to take advantage of that efficiency if the car in front of me wasn’t also connected, and as a result was driving too fast or too slow. I also dream of the day where I can zoom along a highway in a caravan of connected vehicles, but that only works if all vehicles are somehow communicating with each other.

Valiton, Atmel: There are a number of technologies that are required to connect a car to the roadway and municipal infrastructure, along with vehicle-to-vehicle communications. These technologies require a microcontroller (MCU), numerous sensors, a connectivity solution which can range from Wi-Fi such as 802.11p, GPS and 3G or 4G networks and security. The combination allows cars to connect to roadway and municipal infrastructures such as Fastrak, toll payment or Onstar security systems—all of which are connected to terrestrial and/or wireless connectivity.

Security in automobiles is very important. Remember, we are all used to having virus protection readily available on our PCs, but are unlikely to think that much about how secure our software is in the modern automobile. Until now, the software has been part of a closed system and not subject to hacking. With the new V2V and V2X systems, we will need technology to ensure secure firmware updates and prevent hackers from communicating with unsuspecting drivers and their vehicles.

EECatalog: Where do you see opportunities for next-generation advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS)? What technologies fill the gaps—and what’s still needed?

Gryc, QNX Software Systems: ADAS is a hot area, and will continue to grow and evolve over the next couple years. Safety features are becoming part of the European buying decision (encouraged through Euro NCAP), and will spread globally to address continued public emphasis on enabling elderly drivers with aging populations, alleviating increasingly crowded roads and enforcing safety with distracted drivers. ADAS technology will need to rely on inexpensive sensors (cameras being cost-reduced by inclusion in mobiles), merger of multiple ADAS systems into single module/single processor and massively parallel image-processing software.

Davide Santo, Freescale: Advanced driver-assisted systems are among the most interesting innovation areas for automotive today. ADAS will help increase both the comfort and the safety of our autos, while reducing the fuel consumption for a greener mobility and helping us to live better in an increasingly complex and crowded automotive environment. From simple systems that help the driver to compensate for his accidental distraction, such as warning systems, to the systems that can reduce the driver’s stress in traffic or congested areas, ADAS is progressively developing to lead us into a world of autonomous mobility within certain limitations and legal boundaries. Algorithms, microcontrollers, system integration tools, sensors are all developing under the main trend of integration and help manage this complex problem by separating it into manageable subunits.

Santo, Freescale: Many technologies are already available today:

  • Vision camera sensors, which are following in the path of consumer cameras by expanding their depth of colors and the numbers of pixels, complemented with more sophisticated image signaling processing (ISP)
  • Radar units capable of faster modulation of frequencies based on 76-81 GHz and with the possibility to add easy-to-integrate, low-level digital functions to distribute the computational load
  • Infrared technology for night vision
  • Laser-scanning sensors and the already highly fitted ultrasonic sensors for park assist.
    In addition, two sensor classes are emerging as perfectly complementary and beneficial for sensor fusion; the combination of radar and camera, which will dominate development efforts over the next three to five years.

Kurisu, Mentor Graphics: Currently there are hundreds of deployed ADAS technologies and hundreds more in advanced R&D. Among the most interesting opportunities from my view are those that leverage signal- and image-processing techniques that have been used in military and industrial applications for years. Recent advances in heterogeneous system-on-chip (SoC) architectures that combine multiple powerful application processors and FPGA fabrics, such as those found in the Xilinx Zynq processor, can create the technical foundation for such capabilities. Automotive device manufacturers can utilize the fabric for computationally intensive image pre-and post-processing, image manipulation, motion estimation and object classification, and then leverage that information as input to advanced ADAS systems. Other interesting technologies include heads-up displays, voice recognition and even gesture recognition, all of which could be used to minimize driver distraction and simplify the operation of the increasingly complex vehicle. While not a technology per se, but critically important nonetheless, safety standards such as ISO 26262 will be required for these systems as needed.

Valiton, Atmel: There are a number of applications in cars that we are currently seeing and others which we’ll see in the next five to 10 years for ADAS. These include adaptive light control, cameras, in-vehicle navigation, body electronics, access systems, lighting and entertainment applications that will help fill the gap. These applications are already changing the way we interact with our vehicles in more ways than we realize. From advanced lighting to in-vehicle entertainment, our vehicles are already on their way to becoming the connected car that drivers desire.

In order for these applications to be successful in ADAS in the next five to 10 years, there are a number of technologies that must be achieved, including distributed processing, sensors in the car and real-time processing. In addition, applications must support small designs and offer a high level of integration to fit the limited space available in automotive environments. Developers also need to meet compliant automotive qualification demands while offering a wide range of products and services.

Finally, manufacturers must work with developers to create solutions that:

  • Use standards-based connectivity for intelligent networked solutions
  • Allow compatibility and protection including robust electromagnetic compatibility (EMC); electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection
  • Offer resistance to high-temperature and low-power consumption for maximum efficiency

EECatalog: We have to close with this one: the self-driving car. Google’s initiative is one effort, though DARPA has been “challenging” teams to do this for years. Are we ready for a self-driving car? What embedded technologies and software are needed to make this a reality?

Gryc, QNX Software Systems: Technology will be ready before society is ready. Technology advances have allowed several OEMs to draw a line in the sand for production release of some phase of autonomous driving before the close of the decade. What is needed is a focus on turning $100K or more proof-of-concept vehicles into systems with consumer-acceptable price tags. Societal changes will be widespread, and will impact many aspects of modern life: liability of autonomous driving systems, human adaptation/dependence/skepticism, municipal infrastructure changes to roads and parking, shifting car-ownership/car-sharing models, occupant-less courier and taxi vehicles, changes to (or phasing out of) existing mass-transit systems, new charging/fueling infrastructures, etc. Technologies and software are needed for all of these aspects of the autonomous revolution, not just the pieces going into the car.

Santo, Freescale: The self-driving car, a chimera only ten years ago, is now within reach. The need for such mobile systems is evident and goes behind simple comfort during traffic jams. It helps enable a new model of life with more and more people spending long parts of their day in a commuting parade and increasingly needing to find time for themselves or their work. Google opened up the competition by accelerating the race toward the perfect self-driving car. Now manufacturers ranging from Audi to Daimler and other OEMs are in the game to win and convince consumers that it is possible to let a car drive us, within solid technical and legal boundaries. Much remains to be done but the first step is clear: integration of fusion with front vision (which has already started) and secondly, active 3D surround sensing and seeing. Lots of legal issues still need to be considered and resolved, but the impossible is now possible…actually probable.

Kurisu, Mentor Graphics: We’ve already discussed a few of the essential components including GPS, DSRC and ADAS technologies. Additionally, the self-driving car depends on advanced mapping, radar, laser and imaging technologies. Navigation information must include current and precise data, covering local traffic, construction and emergency vehicle activity for example. These systems also will need to be capable of computer vision leveraging very powerful signal-processing, image-mapping and decision-making algorithms. Security technologies to ensure safety will need to be designed into the vehicle and infrastructure. All that being said, the increasingly rapid innovation of microprocessors, GPUs, FPGA fabrics, hardware devices, connectivity and software makes this a realistic vision. These technical advances bring enormous computing power into the automobile, and enable consolidation of functionality into fewer, more powerful computing systems. Are we ready for the self-driving car? Not today, but I eagerly anticipate my first ride in one!

Valiton, Atmel: According to a survey conducted by ORC International, only 18 percent of consumers said they would consider buying a self-driving car.

Despite this survey, we believe consumers do not have a full understanding of self-driving cars. There are a number of technologies today that are baby steps towards a self-driving car (think automatic braking). One example is the safe park, where the vehicle parks itself. Another example is autopilot, a system used to guide a vehicle without assistance from a person, developed in 1912. Autopilots are used in aircraft, boats (known as self-steering gear), spacecraft, missiles and other vehicles.

However, if you think of an aircraft with autopilot, it still requires human intervention—a pilot and a co-pilot—to ensure that if anything is amiss, they can be sure to steer the plane to safety.

With self-driving cars, drivers will have the option to set the car in drive and not worry about a long trip or traffic. Similar to cruise control, the self-driving car can be turned off or if there is an emergency, the driver can still have full control of the car.

However, with strict automotive standards currently in place, to make this idea a reality, hardware and software must work closely together to achieve a safe and reliable self-driving car and one that is not hackable. Embedded technologies such as microcontrollers, sensors and touch solutions, encryption and even technologies such as 3D scanning are already in place to enable an autonomous vehicle.

We are ready for self-driving cars; the real question is whether both manufacturers and drivers are ready to embrace it.


Cheryl Berglund Coupé is managing editor of Her articles have appeared in EE Times, Electronic Business, Microsoft Embedded Review and Windows Developer’s Journal and she has developed presentations for the Embedded Systems Conference and ICSPAT. She has held a variety of production, technical marketing and writing positions within technology companies and agencies in the Northwest.

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