You can say goodbye to the backyard machanic.
Silicon Valley chipmakers are perfecting a dazzling array of computer chips that are revolutionizing the way cars work. They are making autos more reliable, efficient and safe - even as their complexity makes do-it-yourselfers obsolete.Electronic firms such as National Semiconductor, Motorola, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, TRW, Siliconix, Linear Technology and Nova Sensor are at the forefront of this automotive revolution, developing microcontrollers and sensors that will perform mindboggling functions - and for just a few bucks apiece.
"The car is becoming a computer on wheels," says Greg Sheppard, semiconductor analyst for San Jose-based Dataquest, a market research firm.
Today's top-of-the-line Ford, the Crown Victoria, has 16 electronic systems including more than 50 chips, says Ford spokesman John Emmert in Detroit.
A Mercedes S Class sedan boasts a networking system with a single strand of wires connecting dozens of sophisticated microcontrollers. This "multiplex" system enables chips to talk to each other. Fuel injectors and engine timers, for example, can quiz the engine temperature sensor to find out when the engine is warmed up.
When a car breaks down, mechanics can plug diagnostic equipment in at one point and interrogate all the microcontrollers to find out what's wrong.
Cadillac's 1993 models will have a "limp home" feature, thanks to chips. If a car loses its coolant, the engine will fire on only half its cylinders. The reduced temperature enables it to limp to a mechanic without the engine seizing.
"We've driven 50 or 60 miles in this mode," says Cadillac engineer Jay Salam.
To be sure, one expects to find fancy stuff in an expensive Mercedes or Cadillac. What's remarkable is that the technology is migrating down rapidly into affordable cars.
The economical Saturn, for example, already has chips that improve shifting and braking, among other things.
One chip controls the automatic transmission and eliminates the annoying back-and-forth upshifting - called "hunting" - that happens when an older model car travels uphill.
Anti-lock braking, which keeps wheels from locking on quick stops, also is available. A related chip produces "traction control" by reducing power to wheels on slippery surfaces until they get a good grip.
Here's a sampling of what's in store for drivers in the next few years, all stemming from tiny microcontrollers and sensors:
- Adaptive cruise control will automatically "platoon" cars, slowing and speeding them according to traffic density.
- Rear radar will warn you if there's an obstacle behind you while you while you're backing up.
- Tire sensors will alert you when air pressure gets low.
- Head lamp chips will control the high beam, raising and lowering it depending on approaching traffic.
- Re-programmable flash memory chips will control the engine's functioning, automatically breaking in a new engine slowly. As the car ages, the chip will be reprogrammed to obtain optimum performance from the engine and minimize pollution.
- Chips in the music system will adjust the volume, taking into account outside noise, much the way chips in today's advanced climate control systems maintain a constant passenger compartment temperature.
- Air-bags and restraint systems will become more sophisticated and capable of determining with increased accuracy which impacts are life threatening and which are merely irritating.
- Voice-activated controls will eliminate the need to work as many buttons and knobs.
- Communications equipment like the cellular phone and sound system will be integrated, perhaps so that the music level will drop when you pick up the phone.