25-03-2015 | | By Paul Whytock
I'm an old-school driver. I like to feel that it's me in charge of the car not a lot of invisible electronics and software that are switching my lights and wipers on when they think it necessary, nor squawking at me if I get too near a car when parallel parking. And don't talk to me about automatic stop/start systems which I find one of the most irritating aspects of so many modern cars that I wouldn't buy one unless it has a stop/start disable switch. Not just because of the annoyance but also I am not convinced that the car makers have got it right. Normally a car will go through approximately 70,000 stop/starts during its lifetime. With electronically controlled stop/start that gets closer to 600,000. And although car makers wont admit it, that's a lot of extra wear on the main bearings that support the cars crankshaft, but that's another story.
I drive an MX-5 sports car because it has been purposely designed to feel like, and actually be, great fun to drive but. But there is a but. Even I would opt for one electronic driver assistance system that I think is essential given that erratic and unpredictable characteristic called human error, and that's blind spot detection/warning.
A system that will shout at you if it sees you are going to change lane on a motorway and side-swipe another vehicle has to be a good idea, albeit not a particularly new one. Volvo developed a system over ten years ago and car makers like Ford, General Motors, Audi, Mercedes and BMW all offer systems, usually on their high-end models.
However, two German companies have teamed up to develop a rather smart system that has the technical advantage of being radar-based. Chipmaker Infineon Technologies and German automotive supplier Hella have developed radio-frequency components for a 24GHz radar sensor, which monitors a driver's blind spot relative to a car’s rear section.
A radar-based system can scan for moving objects even in poor weather regardless of their speed and direction, and improved antenna designs are expected to provide enhanced accuracy.
So what did Infineon bring to the party? Infineon’s new Microwave Monolithic Integrated Circuits (MMICs) are the key components contributing to the efficiency increase of the driver assistance system.
MMICs typically operate at microwave frequencies (300 MHz to 300 GHz). These devices perform functions such as microwave mixing, power amplification, low-noise amplification and high-frequency switching. Inputs and outputs on MMIC devices are frequently matched to a characteristic impedance of 50 ohms. This makes them easier to use. They are also small and easily mass-produced in GaAs and Si-based technologies. The primary advantage of Si technology is its lower fabrication cost compared with GaAs.
The advantages of MIMICs relative to radar-based blind spot detection is they improve the signal-to-noise ratio which ensures higher precision in the detection and signaling of objects in the driver blind spot. As fully integrated transceivers, the Infineon MMICs contain high-frequency components, like oscillators, transmission amplifiers and reception branches with low-noise amplifiers and I/Q mixers. As a result the Hella radar system becomes smaller, more affordable and it consumes less power and Infineon’s 24GHz chip family enables a custom-fit configuration of the hardware, depending on the system environment and application field.
So the Infineon/Hella system is accurate, power efficient and compact. All highly laudable technical attributes but there is a very important additional feature that will make sure more than just high-end luxury vehicles will carry the system, it's reasonably cheap to produce.
Making it available on a lot more reasonably priced vehicles will certainly translate into revenue for the two companies. Only one question remains, can I get a retrofit version for my MX-5 that will provide a timely and silky-voiced reminder to stay in lane?