Future-proofing embedded automotive systems

Electronics Technical ArticlesSouth-East European INDUSTRIAL Мarket - issue 4/2008

Future-proofing embedded automotive systems
Making the right microcontroller architecture choose
can reduce development costs and future-proof automotive embedded systems development

Dan Termer,
Vice President, Vertical Markets Group,
Microchip Technology

The automotive electronics industry continues to expand its usage of 8- and 16-bit microcontrollers (MCUs). As the MCU is the cornerstone of electronic control modules (ECMs), from safety to convenience systems, and from chassis and driver information to security systems, the selection of the appropriate 8- or 16-bit MCU supplier is critical for the embedded systems developer’s ability to address future challenges. 8- and 16-bit microcontrollers continue to occupy over 75% of the microcontroller sockets within the automotive systems that have been architected today for the vehicles of forthcoming model years. Among the many challenges facing embedded-control design managers, two of the most significant issues are getting projects to markets quicker and managing development costs within budget.
Selecting the right 8-bit or 16-bit MCU architecture is a significant element of the development strategy for most automotive embedded-system developers, and for ECM manufacturers. The scope of MCU selection impacts many functions within a Tier 1 company, from engineering to logistics and from manufacturing to sales and marketing.
In an environment where automotive module manufacturers are reducing the number of suppliers in their base, the selection of the appropriate 8-bit or 16-bit MCU goes beyond the analysis of available features, which can include memory technology and size options, I/O pins, on-chip peripherals, system throughput, power consumption and package options.
Beyond feature sets, the approved suppliers of 8- and 16-bit microcontrollers are instrumental in providing designers with a flexible MCU architecture that offers a broad range of compatible products that are easy to use and supported with a comprehensive suite of development tools. Overall system performance requirements and the allocated MCU budget will generally dictate whether an 8-bit or a 16-bit microcontroller is most appropriate for the ECM being developed. As a result, the most desirable microcontroller partner should have a user-friendly architecture as the basis for a broad family of compatible devices to address various price/performance points across the spectrum from 8- bit to 16-bit microcontrollers. Compatibility of the software, peripherals, and pin-out are key components of any microcontroller family in the quest to deliver embedded systems developers with a viable path to reduced development costs and quicker time to market.

Software compatibility
Consider the software routines used in an 8-bit mechatronics application, where an 8-pin MCU with 2 Kbytes of programme memory is required. One key advantage for the ECM manufacturer would be a microcontroller vendor with a seamless migration path to allow 8-bit code to be re-used in a 16-bit body controller application where a 100-pin MCU with 256 Kbytes of programme memory is required. The PIC® MCU architecture, for example, supports this seamless software migration. An architecture with a strong software migration path, coupled with compatible pin-out support, puts the developer ahead in the drive to get products to market quicker and on, or under, budget. Software re-use is critical as it is overcoming the lack of sufficient embedded software development resources, which seems to face most ECM suppliers today. Plus, with a development tool suite such as the MPLAB® Integrated Development Environment, the embedded-control developers are afforded a seamless development environment to enhance their productivity. Shorter development cycles can, therefore, support lower development costs.
Is flexibility important to the developer? Flexibility is not only important to the developer of ECMs for the vehicle of tomorrow but is an absolute ‘must-have’ in their arsenal to be a survivor in the fiercely competitive and cost-conscious environment that characterises today’s market. Automotive manufacturers are continuing to expand the use of electronics in their drive to address the demands of the consumer and industry requirements and to capture additional market share. Microcontroller suppliers with performance-orientated, compatible architectures provide the developer with flexible alternatives to address these market demands and challenges. In the ECM suppliers’ drive for a competitive advantage, flexibility is an invaluable asset in addressing time-to-market and allowing ECMs to be responsive to their customer needs.