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Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Microchip and the Changing Automotive Reality Jon Gabay

(Source: metamorworks/

The Chips Are Down

The same semiconductor fabs that existed for years can still make consumer, automotive, industrial, military, and aerospace devices, but as cars get more sophisticated, the need to handle more automotive functions and smarter semiconductors means either more chips and circuit boards are needed, or we need more highly integrated functional devices that can handle the variety of tasks thrown at them. This challenge affects essential automotive functions as new entertainment, navigation, safety, and comfort systems to entice prospective car buyers emerge.

When the chips are down, the push is upwards, and that’s just what Microchip Technology is doing these days. By emphasizing more highly integrated engine control, timing, analog functionality, and infotainment systems, Microchip Technology is positioning itself as a leader in the automotive industry. Microchip Technology has embarked on a more robust offering for automakers in several areas of interest by launching more targeted product lines aiming at automotive needs. This includes a range of processors (from 8 to 32-bit), new infotainment devices, new timing devices, and new front-end analog devices. The expanded automotive thrust is poised to entice automakers to incorporate the new, more integrated, targeted functions in a one-stop shop for easy integration and plug-and-play functionality. It is much easier to have one device manufacturer’s technology talking on a CAN bus, for example, than to debug communications hardware and software from multiple chip makers.

Old School to New School

For decades, cars ran without any solid-state technology. Magneto ignition systems worked without any semiconductors. Crude rotation of a distributor cap set timing. Carburetors mixed air and fuel without any oxygen sensors and injectors, and even voltage regulators operated mechanically to keep the car’s electrical system in check and battery charged. People weren’t as pampered, either. There were no electric door locks, power windows, heated seats, backup cameras, or navigation systems, and a simple AM/FM radio was the entertainment system.

Today's cars feature many modern electronics aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing fuel efficiency. Due to the complexity of modern engines, achieving both of these metrics is challenging but essential. However, the improvement in fuel economy and engine emissions has not been significant on average. Hybrid vehicles have only achieved moderate gains, and if coal-fired power plants charge electric vehicles, clean air (and water) benefits are null.

These days, the modern trend towards comfort, luxury, entertainment, automated safety systems, and self-driving is selling cars. These are pushing the need for more and more sophisticated processors and electronics embedded everywhere. This includes procedures necessary for the basic operation of the engine and transmission, communications systems, safety systems, entertainment systems, and so on.

More than Just Consumer Products

Unlike basic consumer electronics, automotive electronics need to survive a much harsher environment. This includes hotter and colder temperatures, excessive humidity and moisture, constant shock and vibrations, possible exposures to severe chemicals and solutions, and better immunity to ESD, EMI, and power fluctuations. As a result, automotive-rated electronic components and chips are much tougher than the components used in your living room TV.

Like avionic electronic systems, automotive electronics need to survive load dump conditions. While aviation requirements are more stringent, automotive electronics need reverse polarity, over-voltage, over-current, and ESD protection. In addition, automotive electronics need some forms of redundancy. If an anti-lock brake system controller fails, for example, the brakes still need to work. If an engine sensor fails, the engine should compensate and place itself in a “limp home” mode. Self-tests and indicators need to alert a driver if proximity or blind spot detector is failing. Failure detection and reporting systems need to be much more robust, and this feeds the requirements for more dedicated and distributed processors and communications networks.

Like the fly-by-wire systems used in modern aircraft, automotive networks such as CAN and LIN connect vital and non-vital systems. This can allow infotainment systems to communicate as an alert system to indicate failures and service needs. This also highlights the need for small 8-bit dedicated processors up to 32-bit high-end multi-core real-time automotive computer chips. Microchip Technology to the rescue.

On the Low Down

Microchip Technology has expanded its offerings ranging from simple microcontrollers to multi-core high-end integrated processors with automotive-grade components. The well-established 8-bit PIC and AVR architectures are proven tough, robust, and flexible enough to handle many dedicated tasks for both pure digital and mixed-signal needs. Operating from 4MHz to 64MHz, the family supports 4 to 70 I/O lines ranging from -40ºC to +150ºC operations. Qualified to AEC-Q100 specifications, these dedicated devices are ideal for more simple autonomous systems like blower motor control, windshield wiper control, power windows and locks, and so on.

Code space up to 128 Kbytes supports complex and sophisticated dedicated tasks, including communications and signal processing. RAM sizes up to 16 Kbytes allow even the 16-bit A/D converters available in these architectures to monitor current, temperature, and other linear values needed to implement autonomous and even fallback modes of operation. For example, a part like the 8-bit PIC18F26K80-I/SO features 24 I/O lines, Flash code storage, on-chip EEPROM, 12-bit A/D converters, 24MHz operation, and IIC, SPI, and USART communications all in a 28 pin SOIC package. In addition, the 1.8V to 5V supply voltage range allows it to integrate into the car's electronics easily.

Likewise, 16-bit parts like the dsPIC33CK32MP205T-I/M4 operate up to 100MHz and contain fixed and floating-point DSP blocks as well as op-amps ideally suited for more complex analog signal processing. In addition, the single-core 48-pin parts provide more horsepower for more sophisticated applications like collision avoidance systems, airbag interlocks and controls, sensor monitoring for fuel and oxygen, for example, and rudimentary engine control and communications nodes in the ever-growing automotive communications network.

These parts also feature CAN bus connectivity for direct connection to automotive diagnostic networks and IIC, SPI, UART, and I/O. In addition, on-chip comparators allow these parts to serve as an alarm and alert indicator if analog levels exceed pre-determined thresholds.

The Microchip Technology automotive high-end 32-bit Arm® core processors also feature CAN and LIN automotive network connectivity. With up to 384 Kbytes of RAM and operating up to 300MHz, these processors can handle high-resolution heads-up displays, augmented reality, immersive technology, and tie together multiple automotive functions. In addition, embedded Ethernet connectivity eases the implementation of numerous Wi-Fi® and Bluetooth® passenger communications. The processing speeds and core complexities up to M7 are ideal for real-time responsive proximity detection and crash detection, along with all the interlocks necessary for airbag deployment.

More Infotainment

While general-purpose automotive processors can target infotainment applications, the demands of modern-day automotive electronics make it easier to partition functions to take advantage of dedicated processors for human interface and entertainment. Media and tactile interface management, media hubs, USB port management, telematics, and wireless charging functions can be offloaded to the dedicated processors with the same high-speed architectures and DSP functionality as the other automotive processors.

Both 16 and 32-bit infotainment processors offload critical timing functions with less critical functions for traffic alerts, navigation systems, audio processing and control, voice commands, cabin environmental functions, and more. Also featuring mixed-signal functionality, the infotainment devices can monitor digital signals and sensor data independently or redundantly along with other processors in a multiprocessor communications network.

This doesn't only apply to entertainment. For example, windshield-projected heads-up display technology could alert a driver to dangers they may not see with the naked eye. When coupled with navigation systems, an augmented reality display can identify where the road is in a heavily snow-covered back road. This has become more of an issue as GPS systems navigate drivers on unfamiliar roads in adverse weather conditions.

The same can even be said for virtual reality systems in the car. High-intensity headlights can be blinding. Police lights from a stopped car can also be overwhelming. A VR headset can filter these out while enhancing the things drivers need to see, like lane markers or debris on the road.

The Linear Interface

While many mixed-signal processors have some linear functionality, discrete devices still come in handy to help improve system performance. With the automotive-grade op-amp, digital potentiometers, D/A and A/D converters, and power monitoring and regulation, the Microchip Technology Automotive Analog Portfolio is ever-increasing to allow logical distributions of processor and signal processing functions. This can help improve signal integrity by placing sensor filters and amplifiers closer to connectors and feeding the processors with data-ready values.

Developers Take Note

Engineers will like the rich availability of Microchip Technology’s evaluation boards and development tools that allow quick testing and evaluation of the technology. In addition, rapid prototyping, and the integration of new technologies, coupled with application notes, tutorials, and design resources, speed up time to market and reduce design iterations.


Integrated circuits, such as the ones available from Microchip Technology, help design engineers meet the demand for advanced engine, communications, safety, and entertainment systems. Working with a market leader such as Microchip Technology means design engineers won't have to scramble for parts to support advanced systems. Proven architectures and support engineers are ready to drive your designs, not drive you crazy.

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