Four Key Features to Consider When Choosing Automotive Connector Systems
Legacy connectors have served automotive connector systems through many design evolutions. Now, however, as new technologies make it possible to design safer, smarter, and greener cars, a new generation of connectors is needed to serve these systems.
Vehicle designers and manufacturers rely on many connector systems that have been on the market for decades. Even modern cars, light trucks, and motorcycles often include legacy connectors throughout the vehicle. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for the tried and true, especially when you consider that the related tooling and assembly equipment costs for these systems were amortized years ago, making for very favorable economics. The times, though, are changing.
Significant advancements are occurring in automotive technology in response to consumer desire for safer, smarter vehicles and green energy technologies. These developments often make it necessary for designers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to seek out new interconnect solutions.
New developments in vehicle propulsion systems are key drivers of this quest. Consider, for example, the following:
- The traditional internal combustion engine vehicle has a 12/14V harness.
- Mild hybrid vehicles (also called power-assist hybrids and battery-assist hybrids) have additional 48–60V battery systems.
- Plug-in hybrid and full electric vehicles have additional electric and electronic systems. Connectors are needed between motors, inverters, and charging mechanisms.
In addition, the proliferation of electronics in vehicles — and especially cars and light trucks — means they have more electrical connections than ever before. Even a low-end vehicle now has 30–50 electronic control units (ECUs), while a luxury car can have as many as 150 ECUs. Meanwhile, a technology-laden vehicle can have as many as 65 central processing units (CPUs), requiring another level up in connector technology.
Furthermore, when high-voltage interconnect systems come into play, the electrical design must also account for clearance and creepage. As connectors for high-voltage applications are generally larger than their 12V predecessors, this can create still another design issue. What’s more, all connections must typically be accommodated within the confines of the same finite space, which creates spatial challenges, as the overall cable and connector content in these systems is greater. In other instances, getting more power to the same (or smaller) space is the challenge.
Now that the table has been set, here are a few pointers that can help you specify interconnect solutions for the latest generation of vehicles.
The Foundational Criteria
Let’s start with the criteria that always guides decision-making in the electronics world. The expertise, experience, and industry longevity of the connector manufacturer should always be considered. With technologies such as brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire becoming more prevalent, a long and lasting reputation for connector systems of unquestioned reliability is paramount. Connector suppliers that serve the automotive and light truck markets must also meet global OEM-specific standards as well as industry group standards, such as USCAR/EWCAP in the U.S. and VDA in Germany.
Choosing Connector Systems for Modern Vehicles: Four Key Features to Consider
1. Size and Power Handling: As OEMs integrate greater levels of functionality into vehicles, the number of interconnected devices multiplies and power requirements rise. However, the design space remains, for the most part, finite and unchanged. Miniaturization has been a major industry trend for several years, and compact connectors are half of the solution; the other half is power handling. Therefore, when researching interconnect systems, look for the optimum combination of compact size and power handling for the application.
2. Performance and Specifications: Until fairly recently, choosing a more compact connector often meant making compromises or sacrificing features due to the reduced size. But this is changing. Today, connector suppliers offer an expanding range of miniature connector systems that meet global OEM specifications for temperature, vibration, and sealing performance. These interconnects may also have secondary locking, clip retainer features, latch protection, and other options.
In short, don’t compromise on connector performance and specifications unless you absolutely have to. With major suppliers regularly launching new lines of miniature, high-current-carrying connectors, the odds are good you won’t have to compromise at all.
3. Extensive Wire Size Range: A connector system with an extensive wire range allows OEMs to specify it for multiple applications and systems throughout the vehicle. Even with varying amperage requirements, the connector can remain the same; only the size of the wire needs to change. The ability to repeatedly use a single connector system can streamline, simplify, and speed up design, manufacturing, and inventory management, while also offering OEMs the potential for volume discount pricing breaks. A wire size range that can support and hold a connector’s specified ingress protection (IP) standard is especially valuable.
4. Flexibility: Flexibility in a connector system equates to greater versatility and integrability, and more opportunities to innovate and improve the electrical design and overall vehicle experience. Ultimately, the more flexibility a connector system offers — and particularly a miniature connector system — the more opportunities OEMs have to save space, weight, time, and potentially capital.
Other examples of flexibility include options such as connector position assurance (CPA) features, polarization and color-coding options, and PCB header and cable relay connection options. Ask connector suppliers about potential plans to add even more flexibility and versatility to their connector systems. For instance, plans to expand pin counts and add higher temperature or shrouded versions could enable designers to improve systems as technologies evolve.
Past, Present, and Future
This article opened with a tip of the hat to the past and to the connector systems that have long been workhorses in vehicle technologies. However, many of these workhorses are being augmented by a new generation of connector systems that serve modern applications and evolving technologies. It’s important to research new connectors to choose designs that can serve the vehicles of the future with the same rigor and reliability that legacy connectors have provided to the automotive industry.
For more information, visit JAE online.
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