MEMS: The telematics opportunity

MEMS: The telematics opportunity

When you turn an iPhone, the image turns, too. When you have a head-on collision, the airbag in your vehicle automatically deploys. These mechanical reactions are made possible by microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS—miniscule machines that can sense temperature, tilt, pressure, speed, and other physical properties and trigger responses from the devices in which they’re housed.

As our understanding of nanotechnology increases, MEMS are being integrated into more and more environments, from smartphones to inkjet printers to blood pressure sensors to automobiles. The sale of automotive MEMS hit a record high in 2010, according to market research firm IHS iSuppli. “High-end cars today have 150 sensors or more, and probably a third of those are MEMS,” says Richard Dixon, senior analyst for MEMS and sensors at IHS iSuppli. “A lot of this is being driven by safety mandates and emission controls getting tighter and tighter.”

The US and Europe have led the way with new legislation requiring tire pressure monitoring systems and electronic stability control, and other countries like Australia and Canada have followed suit. Similar mandates are now being adopted in South Korea and are expected in Japan, accelerating overall adoption rates worldwide. As MEMS become more pervasive in automobiles, the telematics industry has an opportunity to create a safer and more connected experience for the driver. “In the years ahead, GPS will be there, MEMS will be there,” says Mike Kasparian, market development manager, automotive infotainment segment at STMicroelectronics. “Really what this comes down to is what developers design to take advantage of them.”

MEMS and navigation

The obvious intersection between telematics and MEMS is navigation. Most current automotive navigation systems have, in addition to a GPS navigation device, a gyroscope and an accelerometer (both MEMS) that help estimate the car’s position when the GPS signal is lost in urban canyons or tunnels. These MEMS, however, can be used for more advanced functions than simple A-to-B navigation.“Once you have those sensors in there, rather than leave it at positioning, it opens up a series of applications in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS),” says Kasparian. “We can actually mate the GPS to a database and make it talk to wheel sensors or a gyro in the car, so that that positioning becomes a sensor for the vehicle more so than for the driver.”

One example of an ADAS application is adaptive cruise control. Harnessing MEMS, cars can automatically adjust a driver’s cruising speed based on information about the vehicle derived from MEMS (like speed, tilt, and acceleration) and information about the road derived from a digital map (like slope and speed limit). Likewise, cars could alert drivers to speed limits and could adjust speed and angle during cornering. “You have a position sensor in the steering wheel and a gyroscope detecting how much the car turns, and those two things are being continually compared,” explains Dixon. “If there’s a major deviation, then an algorithm will calculate that, step in, and save you from under-steer or over-steer.” The first cars with ADAS capability are expected to reach the public in model year 2013. (For more on ADAS, see ‘Telematics and ADAS: Ready for take off’.)

Making the car smarter

Solutions that unite sensor technology and map databases are already on the market. STMicroelectronics has partnered with Navteq, for instance, to create a map and positioning engine that combines advanced information about the vehicle with a digital map of road geometry, topology, and additional attributes like the number of lanes and speed limits. “The point is to make the car smarter,” says Kasparian. “Give it this information and the different electronic modules in the car, from the powertrain system to the body system, can do amazing things with it.”

Such automotive intelligence is particularly useful in hybrid electric vehicles, which could automatically switch from gas to electric or vice versa when the situation best benefits the car. “It really becomes something that enables the overall hybrid electric experience,” says Kasparian. “You’re getting the most economics out of the vehicle. It knows when it’s on a hill, it knows when it’s downhill, so it can be smarter about what it’s doing with all its systems.”

The potential for hybrid electric fleet management is obvious, as is the value proposition for consumer drivers of hybrid electrics. And what about the guy in the V8 Mustang or Camaro? “Well, he may be happy to know that his cruise control will turn off automatically when he gets on an exit ramp, or that he’s taking a curve at too high rate of a speed as calculated by the processor and that he’ll get a warning light,” says Kasparian.

Getting more from smartphones

Smartphones are another area of strong MEMS growth. MEMS can account for tilt and pinpoint the phone’s location and altitude. As providers look for ways to reach the consumer from end-to-end and unleash the location-based services (LBS) revolution, these MEMS capacities become ever more attractive. (For more on location-based services, see ‘The role of telematics in next-gen mobile advertising’, ‘Telematics and the socially networked car’ and ‘Telematics and the socially networked car, Part II’.)

“Really, the Holy Grail that’s driving this is being able to locate inside a mall, once you break GPS lock, where you’re at so you can push additional messages to the user and help them navigate through an internal building,” says Bill Raasch, vice president of product marketing, smart power and high performance analog at STMicrolectronics. In the near future, Raasch and Dixon say, we can expect to see sensor fusion enabling internal navigation as well as futuristic features like augmented reality. MEMS will provide a gyroscope that, along with a compass, will enable a smartphone to identify an object on the screen, provide a position tag, and then overlay information from the Web.

“This has incredible value,” says Dixon. “All this smartphone innovation is pushing MEMS forward, which is ultimately good for the automobile.” “Mobile platforms are driving the cost and availability of sensors down while increasing their functionality, which can be leveraged back into the telematics platform,” seconds Raasch.

Threats to the PND market

The growth of the MEMS mobile market—and with it the power of mobile navigation solutions—may further threaten the PND market, Dixon says. After all, if you can dock a phone in your car, then unlock it and walk into the mall, all with continuous navigation assistance, that’s tough for a PND to rival. However, mobile MEMS and automotive MEMS are far less redundant. After all, the MEMS inside a smartphone are (and will continue to be) far less accurate than those in a vehicle.

“Ultimately, it’s an advantage to have a built-in system,” says Dixon. “They’re better for dead reckoning as they can access wheel speed information, so you get distance measurement as well as gyroscopic turn rate, which you don’t get in PNDs or mobile phones.” Thus, if automotive solutions that harness MEMS can move beyond simple navigation, they’ll have no competition from the mobile sector.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest trends in telematics, join the industry’s key players at Telematics Detroit 2011.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *