Whereas 60 years ago, electronics made up perhaps three percent of the total value of a car. By 2030, they're expected to be worth as much as 50 percent.
Whereas 60 years ago, electronics made up perhaps three percent of the total value of a car. By 2030, they're expected to be worth as much as 50 percent.
( Source: ©metamorworks - stock.adobe.com)

Auto Electronics Automotive Electronics: past, present, and future

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Erika Granath

From electric starters to heads-up navigation displays, electronics in vehicles have come a long way in the 135 years the automobile has been with us. This article focuses on the development of automotive electronics over time.

Whereas 60 years ago, electronics made up perhaps 3 % of the total value of a car. By 2030, auto electronics are expected to be worth as much as 50 %. In this article, we'll explore and discuss the significance of important automotive electronics components and systems from the past, the present, and the future.

Automotive Electronics of the past

The first commercial motor car from inventor Karl Benz began to be sold in Germany in 1888. Enterprising rivals produced early versions of electrically powered vehicles that same year.

For a time, it looked like electric cars were going to take over the auto industry since gasoline-powered cars were noisy, produced exhaust, and had to be hand-cranked to get started. But in 1911, manufacturers created battery-based electric starters for gas-powered cars. These starter systems eventually became solid-state (transistor-based) in the 1960s. Hence, for the bulk of the 20th century, gas-powered vehicles dominated the roads.

In 1924, Kelly's Motors—a fledgling carmaker in Australia—mounted a home AM radio in an automobile for entertaining passengers.

In the United States, a company called Galvin Manufacturing saw the car as a major market opportunity for their own radios. Starting in 1930 with a custom-designed unit made specifically for cars, Galvin sold its radios to dealers along with installation instructions for all types of vehicles. Because of the popularity of its car radios, the company soon rebranded, taking the word "motor" from the vehicles it built its radios into and adding "-ola" at the end to form "Motorola", a brand name that would go on to have strong association with car electronics in the future.

As early as 1946, Illinois Bell released a car radiotelephone system in the United States. This technology transformed into cellular carphones by the 1980s. But by the 2000s, drivers and passengers began plugging their own cellphones into vehicles, and the elimination of analog cellular phone service ultimately killed carphones for good.

In 1952, German radio firm Blaupunkt added FM bands to their AM car radios. Although rugged, early car radios weren't much different from console home radios of their day. They took up as much as eight liters of space, used vacuum tubes, and weighed as much as 22 kg. In 1955, however, American electronics firm Philco introduced a 100 % transistor radio, vastly shrinking the size of the car radio closer to more modern versions. For a brief time, transistorized car radios even served as preamplifiers for car-mounted record-players, a component that never really caught on with consumers.

In 1939, luxury automaker Packard introduced cars with an electrically integrated air conditioning system. Still, it took until the mid-1950s before other automakers incorporated this feature, combining it with heating for full climate control at the push of a button.

In 1951, Chrysler introduced power steering to one of its car models, and other manufacturers subsequently integrated this feature as well. The year 1958 brought electric cruise control to automobiles, starting with the Chrysler Imperial. In the 1960s, carmakers added diode-rectified alternators to their vehicles, which could power additional luxury features like super-bright headlights, electric windows, and timed windshield wipers. All of these components were fairly primitive when they were invented, but eventually, they became sophisticated and intelligent via their connection to and control by car electronics systems in the 1990s.

In the 1970s, under the hood of their cars, Japanese automakers such as Toyota started to integrate Engine Control Units (ECUs) to manage motor functions such as ignition timing, fuel injection, catalytic conversion, idle speed, cruise control, and antilock braking systems (ABS).

American carmakers initially purchased ECUs from the Japanese but soon began developing their own in-house. Typically, these ECUs were only partially digital and could only be "tuned" (adjusted and customized) to a limited degree. Also, they generally didn't take factors such as a car's wear and tear over time into account, meaning that in the long run, the optimization benefits they provided were lessened.

Carmakers didn't just reinvent the guts of their cars in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; they also sought to radically remake their automotive interiors. European, American, and Japanese automakers began to install stereo eight-track, compact cassette, and CD players in their vehicles for more on-demand music choices. They also started to replace previously analog instrument displays and measurement gauges with sleek digital ones.

In the 1990s, these carmakers returned their focus to under-the-hood functionality. They added adaptive (sometimes called dynamic) cruise control, electromagnetic parking sensors, on-board diagnostic systems, and cellular-based automated emergency calling services for accidents.

In the 2000s, GPS satellite navigation systems and reverse-view cameras began to make viewing screens in dashboards ubiquitous. Vehicle-based hard drives, USB connections, and Bluetooth transceivers allowed car occupants to play their own music and make hands-free phone calls. Drivers and passengers could control music and phone functionality with their voice or via buttons on cars' steering wheels.

Automotive Electronics of the present

The decade of the 2010s brought new capabilities to vehicles like early driver assistance features, such as traffic alerts and lane departure warnings, along with WiFi- and cellular-based LTE data hotspots.

Increasingly sophisticated navigation services now delivered traffic warnings, route planning, and Yelp-linked local business reviews and recommendations. Aftermarket dash cams became extremely common (especially in places like Russia) to protect drivers in cases of legal liability.

Some of the biggest introductions of the decade were systems like Google's Android Auto, Apple's CarPlay, and Nokia's MirrorLink. These allow a car's dashboard/head unit screen to function as a display and controller for Android, iOS, or Symbian devices and their apps.

Apps for internet radio that drivers and passengers could access via their cellphones soon began to compete with satellite radio. Apps for streaming subscription music services such as Spotify gave riders additional choices for sounds on the road.

Televisions made their way into cars as early as 1965, but only recently have viewing screens—often multiplexed and connected to smartphones—become a common sight in vehicles. The latest ones even link to the car's GPS navigation to give passengers "are we there yet?" updates.

Heads-up displays, which project or overlay information onto the interior of a car's windshield, began to be much more common in autos after first appearing in the 1990s. Today, they're able to display augmented-reality (AR) pictures and text that help drivers to navigate.

Under the hood, today's ECUs incorporate microprocessors and can control electronic brakes, transmission, valve timing, and anti-theft systems, among other functions. Some ECUs are reprogrammable via computers to allow for engine monitoring, supercharging, turbocharging, fuel-injection upgrades, exhaust system modifications, gear shift remapping, and more.

And finally, it's now clear that we're on a path to completely autonomous self-driving vehicles. Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) features like automated lighting, lane-departure warning, pedestrian crash avoidance mitigation (PCAM), automatic lane centering, blind-spot detection, collision avoidance, and connection to smartphones for navigation directions have started to make their way into many vehicles.

Companies like Apple, Tesla, and Waymo (the latter owned by Google parent Alphabet) have tested Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) "sleeping driver" Car Autonomy Level 4 features, like the ability to intelligently steer, cruise, and change lanes.

These same companies are working feverishly on SAE "steering-wheel-optional" Autonomy Level 5 fully driverless functionality for their upcoming vehicles.

Some firms such as Waymo and Aptiv are already operating smartphone-ordered SAE Autonomy Level 5 "robo-taxi" services in places like Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona (where some of Waymo's vehicles are completely driverless).

Automotive Electronics of the future

From here, it seems clear the future of cars is about autonomous driving, sharing, electric power, and links to external networks (so-called "vehicle-to-everything," or V2X, connections). Automotive electronics will be leveraged for all four of these.

Laser-based light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, may finally solve the navigation problems of autonomous self-driving once and for all if costs can come down low enough for production vehicles.

While electric cars rely on batteries for their power, ECUs of the future will manage battery usage, charge monitoring, and scheduling of recharging times for powering up.

ECUs will also likely more fully control valves in engines to reduce weight, bulk, and friction in motors via the elimination of lifters, cams, rockers, and timing sets.

More and more, passengers in autonomous and shared vehicles will make use of infotainment (information plus entertainment) systems that will be customizable to the preferences and playlists of each individual. Glass surfaces that are currently transparent may transform into screens for media entertainment, games, or information services that feature AR enhancement of outdoor surroundings.

It's known that BMW and Fiat Chrysler will be partnering with Amazon on Fire TV entertainment systems for cars. Meanwhile, Tesla has struck a deal with Netflix to stream content to its vehicles to be played back for passengers while a car is either driving or stationary.

All in all, the future of car electronics looks rich and bright, and there will surely be many innovations that will benefit both passengers and drivers in the coming decades as cars become smarter, safer, shared, and more efficient.