Semiconductors: Your car is a computer on wheels

A modern car is one of the most complex, software-driven gadgets in the world.


Have you ever wondered how at the touch of a button the car window opens and closes, how if another vehicle comes closer your car’s sensors start beeping, how a slight push to the accelerator pedal can enhance the power delivery of the engine in a fraction of a second? There is something working deep inside a car, some software codes that make these physical acts possible. That software runs on a microprocessor. Then there is the microcontroller, which includes the microprocessor and some peripherals. This microcontroller controls automatic functions needed to run a car—from sending the right amount of fuel to the engine to controlling brakes, and from controlling the human-machine interface (HMI) display to operating automatic seats, windows, mirrors, and so on.

“An entry-level car might have 15-20 such microcontrollers, and a high-end connected car could have more than 100 such microcontrollers,” says Anup Sable, CTO, KPIT Technologies. Essentially, software codes are written for operating a particular function of a car, and the microcontroller makes that code interact with the physical control.
And the usage of such devices in vehicles is increasing. CV Raman, chief technical officer, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, says that the usage of electronics in vehicles has been increasing in recent years. “Contemporary petrol/diesel cars use semiconductors in almost all functional areas, such as powertrain, body control, steering system, braking systems, airbag system, infotainment and vehicle telematics system, and so on.”

This usage, Raman adds, is only going to go up with the mass arrival of electric cars. “Electric cars, in addition to the above, use various controllers for managing the electric powertrain. The key components of the e-powertrain—including the battery, motor, inverter and the charging system—require additional electronics and semiconductors. Further, some auxiliary systems, such as the compressor, vacuum pump and regenerative braking systems, need to be converted from mechanical to electric type to suit electric car requirements, leading to additional usage of semiconductors,” he says.

Raman adds that in a typical contemporary car the share of electronic components by value may range from 10-15%. “But in electric cars this may be about 1.5 times of that in conventional petrol/diesel cars.” The usage of semiconductors is also increasing due to the rising popularity of connected cars in India. These cars have an inbuilt eSIM, and offer features such as voice-based navigation, voice-assisted phone calls, in-car air quality monitoring, remote engine start, and are also capable of over-the-air software updates. A lot of companies—from Kia to Hyundai to MG to Tata, and others—today sell connected cars in India.

And it’s not just advanced cars, even the seemingly ‘simpler’ vehicles such as entry-level motorcycles or even tractors need semiconductors. “Almost all vehicles that have some or the other automatic function need these devices,” Sable says. So the next time you observe your car responding to your voice or the AC maintaining the cabin temperature or the anti-lock braking system helping avoid an accident, do remember that the software running on tiny chips the size of a thumb is helping the car do that.

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