New automotive technologies are changing the ways that cars are wired. Here’s a look at some of the systems that are rising in importance as automation, electrification, and connectivity take the wheel.
By Gabe Osorio, Regional Sales Engineer, Transportation Business Unit, TTI Inc.
Rugged, Modular Connector Systems
A major emerging technology in the electronic components industry are connector systems that can stand up to the harsh environments found in transportation applications and can also provide the ability to link several systems together through a firewall.
The many facets of transportation applications make designing, engineering, and manufacturing connectors a challenge. These critical components must reliably transmit power, signal, and data in all manner of conditions. Personal watercraft vehicles subject connectors to immersion, saltwater, variable temperatures, and high vibration. Mining equipment combines high-vibration conditions with a dirty and dusty environment and high-pressure wash systems. Connectors in commercial trucking systems must endure temperature and altitude extremes across an operating life that can total hundreds of thousands of miles. And yet, these are only the existing challenges. As technology advances, companies continue to strive for even greater efficiency, and as the electronics load of vehicles increases, connector manufacturers will see even greater opportunities to grow their business.
Smaller Cables and Connectors
As vehicle designers continue the quest to improve efficiency and reduce weight, they are also adding features and amenities. Within these new design parameters, even connectors and wiring harnesses become focus areas for improvement. Lighter-weight aluminum wiring is finding its way into subsystems at the expense of traditional copper. Smaller connectors are required to reduce the overall packaging footprints demanded by a growing number of high-density, space-constrained applications.
As consumers and operators demand more from their vehicles — such as video display mirrors, cameras, and parking sensors integrated into infotainment systems, wireless phone chargers built into consoles, connectivity to GPS, internet, cellular telephone networks, and seating with heating, cooling, and multiple positioning motors and servos — the wiring harness has become the central nervous system of a highly complex organism. As a result of these requirements, connector manufacturers are introducing new designs with contacts in arrangements capable of handling power, signal, and data in single, smaller packages. Connector designers are also turning to new styles of contacts, different conductivity plating, and even different contact materials to reduce size and costs without sacrificing performance.
A major consideration for wiring harness fabricators then becomes new tooling for these thinner gauge wires, reduced-size connectors, and new methods of assembly. Vehicle designers need to understand the full implications of what may seem to be a simple reduction in the available package size to fit the latest requirement, as these design choices echo throughout the entire supply chain.
Overall Vehicle Electrification
The number one trend in transportation today is the electrification of vehicle systems ranging from passenger cars, busses, and commercial vehicles, to construction and agricultural equipment and other specialty vehicles.
It hasn’t been that long since vehicle manufacturers were looking at a wide variety of fuels, systems, and even elements in the search for more economical, lower-pollution vehicles. While low-sulfur turbodiesels and hydrogen-based fuel cells showed early promise, the market seems to have settled on battery electrification. These electric propulsion systems will change how manufacturers work, the many subsystems they adapt and invent to take advantage of electricity’s many upsides, and how they overcome or work around the difficulties of range anxiety and long charging times.
Tesla and Daimler have presented electric semi-truck prototypes, joining early innovator Nikola Motor Company. The passenger car market seems to release weekly news from Tesla, GM, Nissan, Lucid, and several other manufacturers, touting new battery performance gains, new models, and, as China opens up, new markets for electric vehicles. Even Caterpillar, John Deere, and other traditionally diesel-powered manufacturers have pilot projects and proof-of-concept programs running to determine where battery-powered vehicles have a place in off-road, commercial, and agricultural applications.
For component manufacturers and suppliers, this new electric frontier offers both market expansion opportunities as well as significant challenges, primarily due to the higher voltage systems employed in these vehicles.
Since the 1950s, vehicles have mainly relied on 12-volt systems for the operation of onboard systems, starting, charging, lighting, basic accessories, and HVAC systems. These traditional designs have been based around simple lead-acid batteries. As research and development into battery technology ramps up beyond the new standard lithium-ion cell, manufacturers are also considering significantly higher voltages, including 28V, 48V, and even 54V systems.
The connection systems and wiring harnesses for these high-voltage applications are substantial, and only a few suppliers currently have the technology and capabilities to provide suitable components. Due to the hazard potential, some manufacturers are looking to deliver the entire finished harness as a single part number in order to maintain manufacturing control and limit any potential liability resulting from the improper assembly of the high-voltage systems.
The future of transportation looks to be totally electric vehicles across the full spectrum of transportation — from passenger vehicles to trucking, to giant mining, construction and agricultural equipment. And with smaller components, higher voltages, and an ever-increasing suite of onboard electronics, the transportation landscape of tomorrow will challenge connector manufacturers like never before.
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