Easier, safer, leaner and cleaner

Greater electrical and electronic content in cars lightens drivers' burden

By Morand Fachot

Most major automobile manufacturers now offer a variety of EVs (electric vehicles). However, this offering often obscures the fact that the electrical and electronic content in vehicles powered by internal combustion engines has been growing steadily over the years. This makes for safer, more fuel-efficient and comfortable driving, and drives the growth of a global industry.

Well-designed EEA (electrical electronic architecture) plays a vital role in modern cars (Photo: Delphi Automotive PLC)

Internal combustion engines rely on… electricity

Petrolheads are often dismissive of EVs, focusing instead on the performance and features of their cars. However, they often forget (or ignore the fact?) that even conventional cars rely increasingly on a multitude of electrical and electronic systems to operate successfully.

For decades electrical installation and components in cars were confined to essential functions and basic safety features.

Electric starter engines that could provide enough power to crank and start the engine were introduced widely from the 1920s and were the first significant electrically-based system in cars. They replaced hand cranks (or starting handles) and proved a major advance for internal combustion engines. They relied on a lead-acid battery to provide sufficiently high voltage and current.

The other electrical systems to be installed in cars early on were headlamps and tail lights, supplanting acetylene and oil lamps. Additional lamps such as indicators were introduced later. Other electrical components – for instance, alternators supplying electricity to electrical loads and batteries, ignition coils, motors for windshield wipers, etc. – were introduced step by step and made up most of a car’s electrical content for several decades.

More comfortable driving

To lure customers away from the competition, manufacturers have gradually introduced a variety of features to make driving easier and more comfortable; often these have relied on electrical components. Initially they were available on top of the range vehicles only or at extra cost; now many of these features, such as electric windows, heated rear windscreens and air conditioning, are standard equipment in most cars.

Other systems like power steering or automatic transmission, which help to make driving easier and more comfortable, were primarily hydraulic systems initially. Gradually they have incorporated electrical and electronic components that make them easier and more reliable to operate.

Today, many other car systems besides power windows, electric power steering and electro-mechanical transmission rely on electrical or electronic components. They include light and rain sensors that automatically switch on lamps and wipers, cruise control allowing drivers to maintain a constant speed and advanced parking support systems that manoeuvre cars automatically into a selected parking space. All these contribute, along with a variety of other aids, to better driveability, increased comfort and reduced driver distraction.

Safety first

Improving road safety has been another major factor in the growing electrical and electronic content of motor vehicles. Sensors play a crucial role – for example by setting off airbags if accidents occur and by detecting critical situations so as to prevent a skid using ESC (electronic stabilisation control) or ABS (anti-lock braking system). Safety is likely to improve further with the introduction of many other devices such as pre-crash systems that control the brakes, automatic steering so as to mitigate the seriousness of accidents and collision-avoidance systems that detect hazards or alert careless or drowsy drivers by issuing sound, vibration or light warnings.

Systems that use information transmitted from roadside infrastructure systems and rely on electronics to control engines and brakes are also being developed.

Safety is further enhanced by better lighting emanating from LED lamps that are more luminous than conventional lamps.

Leaner and cleaner

A number of electronic systems now ensure cars powered by internal combustion engines are more fuel efficient and cleaner than ever whilst offering better performance. Fuel injection, particularly of the electronic variety, has greatly improved the running of engines. It allows smoother driving, better operation throughout a wide range of temperatures and is more efficient, as less fuel is needed for the same power output. As a result exhaust emissions are cleaner, containing combustion by-products that are less toxic and relatively easy to eliminate using clean-up devices such as catalytic converters.

Other technologies help save fuel and cut emissions. They include Start/Stop in which double-layer capacitors shut down and restart engines automatically when vehicles wait at traffic lights or stop frequently, or braking recuperation that recycles the energy normally lost during braking by storing it and then using it for acceleration or re-starting.

Growing share in the value of automobiles

Electrical and electronic systems are wholly responsible for the advances made in many areas of the automotive industry. This is particularly true for electronics, which have made a spectacular contribution to the increase in overall value of cars in recent years. In the mid-2000s, electronics accounted for 10-15% of the total production cost of mid-range cars and 20-30% of the cost of luxury models.

Today they represent some 20-30% of the total cost for all categories of cars, and this share is expected to reach 40% or so by 2015. The figure is nearer 50% if all electrical systems are included. This growth is set to continue: a recent study by A.T. Kearney, a consulting firm, predicts that a car’s embedded software and electronics will account for up to 65% of its total value by 2025.

IEC Standards apply across all domains

Road vehicle standardization relies on a number of international, regional and national regulations and directives.

The main requirement is that cars should comply with the UNECE (UN Economic Commission for Europe) rules as defined by its World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP 29). Most countries — with the notable exception of the US and Canada, which have their own directives — recognize the UNECE Regulations and apply them in their own national requirements. They must also comply, when relevant, with national and regional rules and regulations. Many of those apply to equipment that depends on electrical and electronic systems.

In March 2011, IEC and ISO (Internatiomal Organization for Standardization) signed an agreement concerning the standardization of electrotechnology for road vehicles and cooperation between ISO TC 22: Road vehicles and IEC TCs (Technical Committees).

All road vehicles, even those powered by internal combustion engines, rely increasingly on such systems. More than 3 dozen IEC TCs and SCs (Subcommittees) cover the standardization of equipment used in and related to road vehicles as well as of other associated issues.

They include: IEC SC 17B and SC 17D: Low voltage switchgear and controlgear, and their assemblies; TC 20: Electric cables; TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries; SC 22G: Adjustable speed electric drive systems incorporating semiconductor power converters; SC 23E: Circuit breakers and similar equipment for household use; SC 23G: Appliance couplers; SC 23H: Plugs, Socket-outlets and Couplers for industrial and similar applications, and for Electric Vehicles; SC 32B: Low voltage fuses; SC 32C: miniature fuses, TC 34: Lamps and related equipment; SC 37A: Low-voltage surge protecting devices (surge protection of electronic devices will be a very important consideration for plug-in EVs) and SC 47A: Integrated circuits. Naturally IEC TC 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks, plays a crucial role in the development of future automotive products and its importance and workload are set to grow in coming years.

IECEE, the IEC System of Conformity Assessment Schemes for Electrotechnical Equipment and Components, has a scheme covering certain International Standards developed for the EV industry. These Standards cover plugs, socket-outlets, vehicle connectors and vehicle inlets for conductive charging of EVs, conductive charging systems for EVs and secondary lithium-ion cells.

Manufacturers producing electrotechnology components and systems for the automotive industry also rely on IECQ, the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components, covering the supply of electronic components and associated materials and assemblies, to ensure that their products meet the requirements of the car industry.

Global industry

As the electrical and electronic content of cars has increased, so has the overall value of the industry, opening up many opportunities for manufacturers. The current size of the global car market gives a good indication of the size and growth potential of the electrotechnology content of cars and of its overall value. Over 63 million motor cars were produced in 2012, in addition to 21 million commercial vehicles, according to the OICA (International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers).

Together, the world’s top 10 car producers had revenues of nearly USD 1 375 billion in 2013, according to Forbes. As electronic components alone account for a very substantial share of the total costs for all categories of cars, they constitute a highly significant global market, and one that is set to grow further. This expansion would not be possible without the standardization work done by many IEC TCs and SCs.

Delphi-EEA-Systems-Vehicle Well-designed EEA (electrical electronic architecture) plays a vital role in modern cars (Photo: Delphi Automotive PLC)
jetta_hybrid_org The introduction of hybrid and other EVs has boosted the electrical/electronic content in cars (Photo: Volkswagen AG)
overhead_control_module_org This car overhead control centre integrates complex electronics for multiple functions into a limited space (Photo: Hella KGaA)