Automotive electronics: What are they, and how do they differ from “normal” electronics?

By Nick Davis, Contributing Editor, EE

Automotive electronics are specially-designed electronics intended for use in automobiles. Automotive electronics can be subjected to, and are therefore rated at, more extreme temperature ranges than commercial (i.e. normal) electronics.

Most electrical devices are manufactured in several temperature grades with each manufacturer defining its own temperature ratings. Therefore, designers and engineers must pay close attention to the actual specifications on product datasheets. The list below is an example of temperature ratings/grades. Note that the automotive grade is second only to the military grade (in terms of extreme temperature ratings):

• Commercial: 0°C to 85°C
• Industrial: -40°C to 100°C
• Automotive: -40°C to 125°C
• Military: -55°C to 125°C

Now you may ask, why not just use the military grade in all applications? And there’s one simple answer: cost. You can be assured that as the temperature rating of device increases, so does its cost — sometimes significantly.

However, aside from a special temperature rating, devices that carry the term “automotive electronics” are those devices that have either been designed for or have been adapted for use in automobile applications. Categories of this include carputers, telematics, and infotainment systems.

A carputer (a combination of the words car and computer) is really nothing more than a customized PC designed to operate in a car with one or more of the following added features:

• Compact size
• Low-power requirement
• Customized components
• Video-capable (DVD)
• Music-capable (MP3)
• Bluetooth-capable
• USB-capable
• WiFi-capable
• GPS navigation

The first use of a computer in a car was for engine control. It was called the ECU computer, or the Engine Control Unit. The year was 1968 when the first ECU appeared in a Volkswagen to perform one specific function: EFI (electronic fuel injection). See Figure 1 below.

Fig. 1: Volkswagen first to use a computer in a car. Image courtesy of chipsetc.com.



Soon after Volkswagen started using computers in cars, other manufactures began to adopt this approach. See Figure 2 for a brief time line.

Fig. 2: A brief history of computers used in cars. Image courtesy of chipsetc.com.


Telematics (a combination of the words telecommunications and informatics) is, in a broad sense, any integrated use of telecommunications utilizing information and communication technologies—it is the technology of sending, receiving, and storing information relating to cars via telecommunication devices. The following list includes examples of communications that either use or otherwise take advantage of telematics:

• Vehicle/trailer tracking
• Wireless vehicle safety communications
• Emergency warning system for vehicles
• Intelligent vehicle technologies
• Car-sharing technologies
• Satellite navigation
• Road safety

Infotainment (a combination of the words information and entertainment) systems—also referred to as in-car entertainment (ICE) and in-vehicle infotainment (IVI)—is a collection of hardware and software in automobiles that provides audio and video content in a combination of information and entertainment. It can be argued that infotainment systems was the catalyst for transforming an ordinary car into a smart car, that is, one that can provide excellent entertainment facilities (such as ear seat entertainment) as well as provide technologies capable of driver-assistance, including assisting a driver while parking a car, alerting the driver on a congested traffic route and suggest an alternative path, and providing internet connectivity inside a car.(2)

“Infotainment is one of the key megatrends fueling the pervasiveness of microelectronics in cars.” It’s becoming clear that drivers want to be “connected” and easily access their personal content anywhere, anytime, and on all of their devices. And today’s automotive electronics provide the means for converting the car into yet another “connected device.” “A ‘connected’ car is also more comfortable, safer, and energy efficient, having early access to important information such as weather reports, traffic jams, or road accidents.”(3)

Fig. 3: Example of infotainment dashboard. Image courtesy of mobilesyrup.com.



Today’s cars can have over 50 computer systems dedicated for monitoring and/or controlling everything from ride handling, to on-board entertainment and communication systems (see Figure 4 below). Current automotive electronic semiconductor suppliers include Freescale/NXP, Renesas, Infineon, STMicroelectronics, Bosch, Texas Instruments (TI), ON Semiconductor, Toshiba, and Micron Technology.(1)

Fig. 4: Modern cars use dozens of computer systems and ICs. Image courtesy of chipsetc.com.



The following sections focus on both general and specific applications of automotive electronics offered by Infineon.


Safety applications


Airbag System

  • Airbag systems are standard in most cars and are mandatory equipment in many countries.
  • Infineon’s products support scalability and flexibility for building systems from 4 to over 20 firing loops.

Fig. 5: Airbag System. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.



Automotive 24GHz Radar System

  • Short-range radar implementation.
  • 24GHz radar technology for driver-assist systems such as autonomous emergency braking and blind spot detection.

Fig. 6: Radar System. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.


Multi-Purpose Camera System

  • Highly integrated, compact, and efficient camera system.
  • Enables driver assistance functions including lane departure warning, forward collision warning, traffic sign recognition, and pedestrian recognition.

Fig. 7: Camera System. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.



Tire Pressure Monitoring System

  • Ensures correct tire pressure for car safety, handling, and comfortable driving.
  • Increases tire lifetime of up to 30%

Fig. 8: Tire Pressure Monitoring System. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.



Powertrain Applications


48V Micro-Hybrid

  • Start/Stop and High-Efficiency Generator
  • Engine brake emulation, car sailing/coasting, electrical car launch.

Fig. 9: 48V Micro-Hybrid System. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.



Gasoline Direct Injection System

  • Conforms to the latest emission legislation at the highest possible fuel efficiency.
  • Provides enhanced measurement precision (ignition control, misfire detection)

Fig. 10 Gasoline Direct Injection System. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.



Body Applications


LED Rear Light Module

  • Integrated LED control with diagnostic and dimming capability
  • Increases lifetime of LED and LED driver due to integrated protection.

Fig. 11: LED Rear Light Control. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.



Interior Light Control with Capacitive Touch Sensor

  • Replacing mechanical switches offers cost savings.
  • Robust and reliable touch sense control technology.

Fig. 12: Interior Light Control. Image taken from Infineon’s Automotive Application Guide.



It’s truly amazing to ponder how far cars have advanced since Volkswagen first used a computer system in 1968 — 49 years ago. And given the current trends of today’s automotive electronics, it’s unimaginable what cars will be like in another 49 years. Perhaps we won’t drive cars at all, but rather we’ll simply sleep, watch movies, or FaceTime with friends and family as the car drives itself down the road…or flies through the air.




  1. https://www.chipsetc.com/computer-chips-inside-the-car.html
  2. https://embedded-computing.com/articles/automotive-industry-innovation-driven-electronics/
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  • Anton Vilman

    How is the Reliability tackled in that area, and in what extent is redundancy used to cope with it?