On January 29, 1886, the German mechanical engineer Karl Benz applied for a patent for his invention, a vehicle powered by a gas engine, becoming the first of many cars that this civilization had to innovate. Benz’s patented single-cylinder tricycle, reaching a meager 10 miles per hour, has become a plan for further development, leading to the modern cars that the world enjoys today.

The future of the automotive sector really looks very bright, as more and more parts of vehicles are already controlled or monitored electronically. Today, modern cars have many features such as all-wheel drive, navigation tools and sensors, in-car entertainment, braking systems and even self-driving options. Qualcomm’s drive to digitally transform the car during CES 2022 earlier this year is an indication.

Electronic control modules in the modern car

Of course, as vehicles begin to shift to smarter and far from internal combustion, the number of electronics in the car will inevitably increase. How many chips are in our vehicles?

Estimates say there are about 1,000+ chips in a non-electric vehicle and twice as many in an electric one. Imagine a computer or a cell phone. The chips in these devices are significantly less than in a car.

Why do you need all these chips?

The modern car uses several electronic modules that control the different functions that a car can have. Simply put, a car today cannot run without microchips. As carmakers work with chipmakers like Qualcomm to develop more innovations to introduce digital chassis, the number of chips needed is sure to increase.

To control, monitor and control countless systems in the car, manufacturers spend a lot of engineering work in the ECU or electronic control units. These ECUs include a mini-computer designed to control a very specific function in the car and usually have a special chip that controls its software or firmware. These mini-systems receive inputs from different parts of the vehicle, depending on its overall function, through the use of different types of sensors, actuators and switches. They are powered and can sometimes require data connections to function properly.

Of course, these are just a top view of the electronics in the average car today. Each ECU module will contain several chips, and the middle car will probably have nearly 100 separate modules, all of which must be properly connected. This means that intermodule data processing will be more efficient if performed separately than controlled by a single processor. Link this to the migration to electric vehicles (EVs) and the number of chips in the car is easily doubled, not to mention the rise of smarter cars.

Below is a snapshot of some of these ECUs.

1. Security, safety and access

There are several ECUs dedicated only to safety. Given that life is at stake if any of these features are not turned on when necessary, precision and reliability are a must for any car ECU, especially for safety features.

These modules control airbags, parking assist, collision avoidance, power supply lock, breakage assistance, tire pressure monitoring and traction control. A collision avoidance ECU, for example, will monitor the proximity around the vehicle to warn the driver and help avoid or significantly reduce the risk of a collision, especially vital in self-driving cars. The ECU, designed for airbags, will facilitate deployment after a crash is detected. The exact time of deployment can mean life or death for the passenger.

Security and access ECUs include door locks, keyless entry and alarm systems, to name just a few that are also dedicated to securing the vehicle and passengers inside. Keyless ignition functions are already beginning to replace ordinary car keys, and this comes with an ECU designed to facilitate this function.

2. Drive and electrical systems

To keep the car running at optimal levels, there are many control and monitoring systems for propulsion and electrical systems, such as the engine, fuel injection systems, hybrid-electric control, transmission control, starting, lighting systems and diagnostic systems of vehicles. These systems are vital to ensure that the vehicle can operate safely and consistently. The electric car will inherently have a different propulsion system from the internal combustion engine. One that is simpler but still requires an ECU for monitoring and control. The ECU electrical modules in this category are responsible for distributing power to all other modules in the vehicle. Think of them as the vehicle’s cardiovascular system, which pumps blood and distributes it to the rest of the body.

3. Comfort, Infotainment and connectivity

Comfort driving is always an important selling point in the car. The main ones include window / mirror control, seat heating, steering, climate control, etc. Pair this with in-car infotainment systems such as audio / video control systems, driver displays and even navigation. These systems include interfaces such as the traditional button panel or more modern touchscreen display and voice-activated commands. The integrated main devices are now mainly touch screens, which serve as a central controller for infotainment systems.

Other modern cars already have an active Heads Up Display (HUD), which displays real-time information about the car on a transparent screen located on the dashboard, designed to help reduce driver distraction by looking too far off the road. Some first-class features may include multiple displays that will require high-end digital signal processors (DSP chips) and graphics processors (GPUs).

Connecting a car to the World Wide Web opens up many new possibilities for what tomorrow’s digital chassis might look like. The CAN (Controller Area Network) protocol helps standardize communication in the vehicle, allowing systems and devices to communicate with each other. Other connectivity options include GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and over-the-air software updates, all controlled by dedicated ECUs.

Shortage and the automotive industry

It is no secret how badly the shortage of chips has affected the automotive industry. All car manufacturers have had production delays, plant shutdowns due to COVID and supply problems. For example, some, such as General Motors, have begun to build their models with missing features that can be installed retroactively once delivery is available. At the end of 2021, GM temporarily stopped offering heated seats in its 2022 models to keep up with demand.

Similarly, many other manufacturers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, have taken steps to mitigate the effects of the shortage. As a result, consumers found it more difficult to buy new vehicles, as car dealers had limited stocks available, with new models still delayed in production and limited in stock.

While Western carmakers have been hit hard by the shortage, Japanese carmaker Toyota has suffered less. Thanks to intelligent planning and chip storage, Toyota’s North American production had excellent yields at 90% capacity in 2021, despite shortages.

With the sheer amount of chips needed in today’s cars, it’s easy to determine why the shortage has crippled carmakers over the past few years. Sometime in the early 2000s, car electronics accounted for approximately 18% of the total price. By 2020, electronics already account for 40% of the price of the car, and forecasts say it will jump to 45% in 2030. However, the chips used in the automotive sector are also different from those used in consumer electronics. Automotive chips need to maintain functionality and reliability in more extreme conditions than their consumer counterparts. The temperature ranges in the vehicle are higher, the life cycle is longer and there are low failure rates. Everything is required to pass automotive chip standards.

As chipmakers struggle to meet demand by increasing production capacity, many analysts still see that shortage persists until 2023, exacerbated by rising tensions in parts of the globe. Some experts advise you to pre-order at least a year in advance if there are any foreseeable requirements for vehicles. Certainly this volatile mix of COVID-19 rule and ongoing political wars makes the horizon seem hazy.

How many chips are in our cars?

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