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Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 12 News List

A revolution in engineering is turning cars into computers

High-tech sensors, cameras, hybrid engines, navigation sustems -- the modern automobile is beginning to rely less on mehcanics and more on electronics


When Nobuyuki Furui joined Toyota Motor Corp's electronics section in 1980, he had just 50 or so co-workers.

Things certainly have changed.

"Now there are five big electronics divisions with thousands of workers total," said Furui, a group manager at one electronics engineering division, surrounded by a display of Toyota's latest safety technologies at a facility near Mount Fuji.

Electronics have long since replaced mechanics in a car's braking and steering, for example, and will be used more as auto makers race to build cleaner and safer cars, while bringing more comfort and convenience to drivers.

"There's virtually no component that runs solely on mechanics now," said Takeshi Uchiyamada, a senior managing director in charge of vehicle technology at Toyota.

Already, high-tech sensors, radars and cameras are used for gadgets such as parking assist units, lane keeping and adaptive cruise-control systems, while electronics are also present in car navigation and remotely controlled lock functions.

But as car manufacturers move from "passive safety" to "active safety" -- for instance, alerting drivers to danger instead of simply reducing the damage from a collision with seatbelts and airbags -- the use of such parts will grow.

Thanks to this trend, global demand for car-use semiconductors rose 19 percent last year to US$14 billion, and is forecast to rise at an annual rate of around 10 percent in subsequent years, according to the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association.

By 2007, chip demand for cars is set to reach US$20.91 billion.

That number could swell if gasoline and diesel-electric hybrids catch on faster: the niche vehicles, which use electric motors and battery packs to improve fuel efficiency, use twice as many chips as a conventional combustion-engine car.

Car makers are also using electronic controls in fuel injection units and other areas to help save fuel for conventional combustion-engine cars in ways that they say were not possible mechanically.

The use of electronics goes beyond safety and clean air.

By combining electronics with information technology, big car makers are also stepping up work on interactive transportation systems that could help smooth the flow of traffic and help drivers communicate with each other.

Car navigation and electronic toll collection systems are already common in Japan, but that could extend to electronic payment at petrol stands and drive-through shopping stops.

"Electronics are now vital to raise the value of cars," said Hironobu Kiryu, a chief engineer at Honda Motor Co. "Without them, there will be no progress."

The end of the road is distant. Car executives and engineers often talk of collision-free vehicles as their ultimate goal.

The trend towards more electronics has not only helped car parts makers that are dominant in the field, such as Visteon Corp, Bosch and Denso Corp, but also pure electronics makers like Hitachi Ltd, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co and NEC Electronics Corp.

"The role of pure electronics makers could get bigger with this trend," said Koji Endo, analyst at CSFB Securities, adding however, that their roles would likely be secondary as long as auto makers remain protective of the initial breakthrough technology for an electronic car part.

To prepare for the spread of advanced safety and other features to lower-end cars -- most are now limited to luxury vehicles or as expensive options due to high R&D costs -- electronics firms are beefing up their car parts operations with the aim of getting more business from car makers.

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