Vehicle networking may change connector requirements
Huge growth in sensors is helping fuel a shift to Ethernet and other alternatives as a way to reduce the bulk of wiring harnesses. Connector demand should grow as more modules are added.
The number of sensors on passenger cars has exploded over the past few years, and there’s no sign of a slowdown. The industry’s infatuation with autonomous vehicles will spark further growth in sensors, creating demand for ruggedized connectors.
These sensor modules, which are scattered throughout the vehicle, will send data to domain controllers and centralized electronic control units (ECUs). As automakers add radar, Lidar and other sensors, they’ll also expand from luxury vehicles into higher volume mainstream models, expanding the connector market. This growth, coupled with expanding markets in China and India, will drive market growth even though some trends like networking and increasing connector density reduce demand for connectors.
As advanced safety systems automatically brake and steer based on sensor input, communications between sensors and controllers will be very time sensitive. For example, data from a camera or radar modules will have to get to the controller very quickly so there’s time to analyze the data and determine that whether or not emergency braking is necessary.
The growth in sensor modules shines the spotlight on connectors and cables. They’re often considered necessary evils that can add weight and reduce reliability. That’s prompting an industry-wide shift to networks that can eliminate the bulk of conventional wiring harnesses. Even though reducing this bulk has been a focus for years, some vehicles still carry wiring harnesses that weigh close to 100 pounds.
That’s a huge negative for vehicle design teams that are striving to trim weight to meet tighter emissions requirements and increase fuel economy by more than 50%. Together, the need for communication speed and a reduction in wiring complexity are prompting a shift to high speed networks.
Ethernet is now becoming the network of choice for advanced systems. It will replace some CAN networks, though the CAN links that now dominate all vehicles will remain viable for several years. Ethernet is still in its infancy in automotive, but it’s expected to grow rapidly. ABI Research predicts that it will be on 40% of new vehicles by 2020, up from single-digit percentages today. Strategy Analytics forecasts that demand for automotive Ethernet will exceed 120 million nodes by 2020.
Researchers at Technavio highlight the weight savings that can be gained by deploying Ethernet.
Technavio notes that BroadR-Reach Ethernet, developed by Broadcom, “uses a single twisted pair of unshielded copper wires, thus resulting in cost reduction of approximately 80% and weight reduction of 20% as compared with technologies such as low-voltage differential signaling (LVDS).”
Some design teams are exploring the possibility that HDBaseT may spar with Ethernet for some spots. Designed for the audiovisual industry, it’s a high-speed scheme that uses a single unshielded twisted-pair cable. It also provides up to 100W of power, giving it an edge over Ethernet. Automotive developers have not discussed using Power Over Ethernet.
Connectors for this market must be designed for the harsh automotive environment, which includes vibration caused by potholes as well as temperature swings from an Alabama summer to an Alaska winter. Automotive requirements are typically more stringent than those for industrial applications that have been addressed by many connector providers.
While connector manufacturers explore the expanding role of Ethernet, they won’t be able to stop development and production for CAN and LIN networks. CAN, nearly ubiquitous in today’s cars, is adding a full duplex version. LIN is expected to maintain its role as a low-cost network for use in very low speed applications like seat and window motors.
While the number of sensor modules is growing, the inverse is true for controllers. More powerful multicore microcontrollers can handle more tasks at high speeds, so it’s becoming easier for system designers to integrate multiple functions in a single box. That eliminates wiring and connectors as well as power converters found in most modules.
Overall, the growth of electronic functions will drive growth in the automotive connector market. Large touch-screen displays and LEDs used for mood lighting, which lets drivers change the color of ambient lighting, will also fuel the demand for connectors that meet automotive requirements.