Enhancing drivers' eyes, senses, and reflexes with creative electronics

-May 16, 2017

Safety while driving is paramount when we think about all the different proposed electronics that will be going into modern automobiles. There are some nice electronics features that we enjoy in today’s cars like great audio systems, including digital radio, but when it comes to protecting the driver and occupants as well as pedestrians, other cars, drivers, and property outside the vehicle, I want to see more electronics technology focused there in the near-term. Collision mitigation can save countless lives, prevent injury, as well as enable fewer property damage claims to keep insurance premiums down.

Although we are not yet technically ready for autonomous vehicles (see this IEEE article: Hit the Brakes—We’re Not Ready for Autonomous Vehicles—I strongly agree), what we can have in the near-term is safety electronics in automobiles. Radar, LIDAR, and camera vision integration are becoming more affordable in modern automobiles.

Let’s take a look at the advanced electronic systems that will very soon find their way into the modern automobile with respect to radar and LIDAR systems (cameras are covered in the articles referenced at the end of this article). We can start with one of the most recent innovations by Texas Instruments that was just announced—the new mmWave sensors for automotive and industrial applications.

ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems)

Today’s ADAS function with a suite of sensor technologies which includes cameras, radar, and LIDAR. Designers can now effectively develop advanced safety features such as forward collision warning, blind spot detection, pedestrian detection, and autonomous driving functions. Cameras are used widely for object recognition while radar with its radio-frequency electromagnetic waves measures distance. LIDAR uses laser beams to measure the distance and can also recognize objects. Scanning LIDAR systems can be used to detect objects on or near the roadway and fill the blind spots known to exist when using radar and cameras.

mmWave radar

Enhancing driving safety with the goal of preventing accidents demands that we detect range, velocity, and the angle of objects outside the vehicle. Ideally we want the system to perform under the harsh conditions of rain, fog, dust, light, and darkness and a really nice added feature would be the ability to penetrate glass, plastic, and other materials for versatility in detection and system performance and placement within or on the vehicle. From what I can see with today’s technology, only mmWave meets all of these criteria.

I feel very positive about mmWave technology quickly advancing in performance in the industry because it is also a critical need in the coming 5G communications standard. Innovations such as beam-steering and more are added benefits are what 5G is bringing to mmWave.

Of course, mmWave technology has existed for a long time, especially in the communications industry; however, some key features are missing or lacking in order to make this technology work in the automotive and industrial sectors. We need better accuracy, smaller size, lower power consumption, fast time-to-market for designers and finally, today’s mmWave technology is complex with multi-chip solutions for a system such as a transmitter, receiver, ADC/DAC, processor, and an amplifier.

Texas Instruments mmWave radar solution

Texas Instruments is introducing their mmWave, single-chip solution, operating across the 76-81 GHz spectrum with the RF, microcontroller, DSP and interfaces in one die. And the best part about this solution is that it was conceived and designed with automotive use in mind from the outset. I spoke to Sameer Wasson, GM for radar at TI, who gave me an excellent overview of their new IC family.

There is actually a five-chip portfolio introduced for designer versatility in selecting the particular one for their system architecture. Of course, time-to-market with a robust design is a must and TI does not fail in that area: design and development tools exist like mmWave Studio software, mmWave online trainings, a single software development kit/common software, and development tools such as evaluation boards and reference designs.

I never cease to be amazed about what IC designers can put into a tiny, low power, cost-effective CMOS chip. In this case, a very high frequency IC as well. TI’s Kilby Labs innovations have been a great boost to industry electronics designers. Advanced mixed signal circuitry, ultra-low power transistors, and so much more ingenuity enable these ICs to excel in circuit designers’ hands.

Mid- and long-range radar

The first IC is the AWR1243 RF IC for mid- and long-range radar that is slated for automotive emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and automated highway driving.

Proximity sensing

Next is the AWR1443 with RF and a microcontroller for proximity sensing for occupant detection, body sensor, in-cabin gesture recognition, and driver monitoring.

Ultra-short and short-range radar

Finally, there is the AWR1642 containing RF, microcontroller, and a DSP processor for ultra-short and short range radar. Such applications are blind spot monitoring, rear collision avoidance/warning, lane change assist, pedestrian/bicyclist detection, collision avoidance, cross traffic alert, 360º view, and park assist. This IC can sense its surroundings within a 100 meter radius of the vehicle. This capability enables autonomy. This IC contains a DSP, RAM with CAN and CANFD, which enables an accurate 3D mesh around the vehicle where different assistance and safety functions can be implemented.

Dynamic multi-modal operation

By combining the AWR1243, AWR1443, and AWR1642 IC in an automotive system, designers can have a dynamic multi-modal operation system where sensors are able to switch from catering to high-speed driving, slow-speed maneuvering, and parking scenarios. Sensing must change with driving conditions which differ from a highway, to a city road, or a parking lot. These sensors are able to re-configure every few milliseconds to adapt to these different dynamic areas. The sensing modes vary from a few millimeters out to hundreds of meters to adapt for stationary or moving objects at speeds as fast as 300 km/hr (Figure 1).


Figure 1 These IC solutions will enable auto industry designers of electronics to implement radar sensors that meet sensing needs of Level 2 automation and beyond. (Image courtesy of Texas Instruments)

Analog Devices radar solution

In February 2017, Analog Devices announced the Drive360 28nm CMOS radar technology platform that builds on its established ADAS, MEMS, and radar technology portfolio widely used throughout the automotive industry for the past 20 years. 

In April 2017, Renesas Autonomy, an ADAS platform, was announced. At the same time, Analog Devices announced a collaboration with Renesas on a system-level 77/79 GHz radar sensor demonstrator to improve ADAS applications. Today, Analog Devices has a 24 GHz SiGe BiCMOS chipset, but they are planning a 7x GHz RF CMOS system solution for the future. The “leapfrog” will continue.

Next: LIDAR

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