Could green chips in cars save the environment?

21 Aug 2008

A US$6.3bn electronics boom is underway, driven by the spate of rising fuel prices, environmental concerns and the need to develop electronic devices that could see the manufacture of ‘green’ vehicles.

Research from Gartner predicts that microcontroller units (MCUs) and other technologies used in green vehicles like hybrid cars are driving a US$6.3bn automotive marketplace.

“MCUs play an instrumental role in accelerating electronic innovations in automotives by making the vehicle lighter and more efficient, and drivers more informed,” said Amy Leong, research director for Gartner.

“Increasing complexity in automotive electronics is amplifying the need for higher-performance 32-bit MCUs with more embedded memory.”

Last year, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page (pictured) revealed plans to develop an ultra-efficient plug-in hybrid car that runs on ethanol, electricity and gasoline, in collaboration with hybrid-engine scientists and automakers out of a US$1bn fund. They also plan for the purchase of a small fleet of cars with plans to convert them to achieve 100 miles per gallon or better mileage.

The improved fuel economy of hybrid electric vehicles or HEVs is attributable to the addition of an electric engine to the combustion gas engine, which can take over from the gas engine when the car is stopped or at traffic lights.

Smooth, uninterruptable blending of power between the two engines requires strong computer control and complex software, which is provided by MCU technology with enhanced on-chip memory.

The ‘brain’ of the hybrid engine control unit (ECU) is the 32-bit MCU, which provides high-speed operation up to 200 MHz and on-chip memory of more than 4MB. It constantly monitors the driving conditions and manages the power flow between the generator, battery and motor.

“Using more electronics in vehicles plays a critical role and MCUs inside these electronics provide higher-precision control and on-demand capability, leading to considerable improvement in fuel-efficiencyand a reduction in emissions,” Leong said.

MCU-enabled applications such as electronic power steering and multiplexing/networking reduce overall vehicle weight and improve gas mileage by eliminating mechanical systems and dedicated wiring. Many consumers are already realising the benefits of GPS and onboard computers to help route around traffic congestion and maximise fuel economy by monitoring speed and driving habits.

“With increasingly stringent emission regulations and higher gasoline prices, the automotive industry is making strides toward cleaner emissions and better fuel economy,” Leong explained.

“In the next decade, we will see an accelerated adoption of fuel-efficient technologies in all cars worldwide. Additionally, we expect the revolutionary zero-emission and alternative fuel solutions to be commercialised after 2015. All of these innovations will rely heavily on electronic control systems, and therefore MCUs,” Leong added.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: CEO, Dr Larry Brilliant and Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin take a spin in one of the ‘green’ hybrid cars they are investing in

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years