Next-generation car sensors will revolutionize driving

Electronic component makers both here and abroad are developing car sensors with varying functions that could make driving much safer and easier.

Tokyo-based Stanley Electric, which makes onboard vehicle lights, has created a high-accuracy range imaging sensor for cars that is roughly one-twentieth the size of mass-market sensors. The company says its product is the smallest in the industry.

Rangefinder sensors measure the distance between an object and the vehicle by analyzing light signals reflected off the object using the “time of flight” method. Stanley Electric miniaturized its device by decreasing the number of light-emitting diodes.

The company’s range sensor can accurately measure distances even amid strong sunlight. The plan is to place the rangefinder on the rear camera and elsewhere on the car body so that the driver can ascertain the surroundings. When backing up using normal rear-view monitors, distances can be hard to determine if obstacles have similar colors. But Stanley Electric’s imager can differentiate between separate objects.

Mass production is slated for 2018, and the company is busy optimizing the sensor to measure ranges beyond one meter.

Taiyo Yuden, a major manufacturer of multilayer ceramic capacitors, is developing its own miniaturized sensors embedded in driver’s seats that measure the pulse of vehicle operators. If the pulse rate indicates the driver is nervous to the point of impaired driving, the system could issue a warning.

The company’s piezoelectric pressure wave sensors convert even the slightest pulse vibrations into electrical signals. Taiyo Yuden says the devices can also be applied to technology that checks if a driver is asleep at the wheel.

The chip for the pressure sensor has been developed to the level where it can be commercialized. Algorithms that analyze pulse rates, which can differ between people, still need to be refined.

Switzerland’s TE Connectivity, the world’s biggest supplier of connectors, is selling a miniature onboard humidity sensor in Japan through local subsidiary Tyco Electronics Japan. The sensor is installed next to the rear-view mirror, and it measures the windshield’s humidity.

Nowadays, many cars constantly blow air onto windshields with defoggers. TE’s sensors reportedly can automatically stop the airflow depending on the humidity. By reducing the use of air conditioners, cars can save energy. The sensors are simpler in design compared with competitors, and thus are highly durable. The humidity sensors have already been adopted by automotive companies in Western nations, and many Japanese firms have expressed interest.

The expanding self-driving functions of vehicles has resulted in additional components. The global device and components market is expected to grow to 17 trillion yen ($164 billion) in 2020, up 4.7% from 2014, data from the Fuji Chimera Research Institute shows. That number will likely exceed 22 trillion yen in 2025.

Even sensors are not directly applicable to automated driving, they are increasing in number per vehicle because as value-added features. The emergence of smartcars are part and parcel of this trend.

Although Japanese manufacturers retain a competitive advantage in the global electronic components market, they are far behind when it comes to making central processing units in next-generation cars. Overseas competitors like Intel and Nvidia in the U.S. have positioned automobiles as a new market, and they are attempting to develop the Japanese market as well.

Japanese companies may end up competing to have their components included in reference models for smartcar CPUs, similar to the pattern that occurred during the smartphone boom.

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