Automakers have a problem: how to cram the necessary electronic gear into their future products without strangling on the wires.
Electronics giant Motorola Inc. and Volvo Car Corp. of Sweden have a solution. The companies have jointly developed a family of electronic microcontrollers that can cut in half the wiring needs of future vehicles.
The partnership will oversee launch of its first controllers on the 1999 Volvo S90/V90. The relationship is an indicator of the growing prominence electronics companies have in the automaker supply chain.
'Car companies want to take a lot more intellectual ownership of their electronics systems,' says Scott Ballentyne, worldwide marketing manager for Motorola's Body Electronics division. 'We are working closely with them in (designing) those systems and are looking a lot more like a Tier 1 supplier.'
Automakers are troubled by the increasing bulk of wiring. Large luxury vehicles such as the Oldsmobile Aurora have up to one mile of wires weighing 65 pounds, according to the Aurora's harness supplier, Delphi Packard Electric Systems.
New convenience features such as in-car navigation systems will require even more wiring, as will diagnostic systems and sophisticated engine modules for direct-injection engines, says Volvo spokesman Ingmar Hesselefors.
'In order to meet future targets for fuel consumption and emissions, we need to have more electronic components, which means more weight,' he says.
Motorola's controllers use multiplexing technology to cut the amount of wiring needed by as much as 50 percent.
Multiplexing works like the fiber-optic cable system used by telephone companies. Instead of using separate wires for each 'call,' a single wire carries multiple messages from a central processor to the car's electronic devices.
The technology is not new, and is already available on some vehicles in Europe and North America, including the Mercedes-Benz S class. What is new is Motorola's controller, which can process more signals more quickly than anything available before, without an increase in component price, the company says.
The processors also can diagnose and pinpoint wiring problems, cutting the time technicians need to track down electrical gremlins.
The demand for such abilities has propelled Motorola into a closer relationship with automakers, Ballentyne says. The company ranks No. 20 on the Automotive News list of top original-equipment suppliers to North America.
The trend is more pronounced in Europe than in the United States, where captive suppliers still dominate the Big 3's electronics business. But Ballentyne says this is changing as captives are spun off.
'We want to become the automaker's silicon supplier of choice.'