Detroit — As sophisticated electronics and sensors become ubiquitous in mass-market vehicles, suppliers are looking for ways to pack more electronics onto the outside of vehicles while maintaining desirable aesthetics.
A new report by Allied Market Research estimated the automotive sensors market at $22 billion in 2015, and projected it will reach $37 billion by 2022. Driver assistance functions such as back-up cameras and collision warnings are already common on today's vehicles, and OEMs are looking ahead to a fully autonomous future.
But sensors are subject to several packaging requirements; metal — even metallic paint — can interfere with the sensor's operation, as well as plastic that is too thick or coated.
“It works great in the lab … but if you have to disguise it behind the bumpers, it's a little bit tricky,” said Robert Hurley of Hella Group, a Germany-based supplier of lighting and electronics. Hurley's U.S.-based team handles the vehicle integration portion of the sensors business.
OEMs and suppliers design around these challenges with varying levels of subtlety. Sensors can be hidden behind a grille or under transparent plastic, and we've all seen those telltale circle cutouts on a bumper that signify ultrasonic parking sensors — “pimples,” as Hurley calls them.
Hella is looking for new ways to integrate sensors into vehicles, including opportunities to fuse different functions into a single unit. A new compact radar-based sensor — in a plastic housing not much bigger than a matchbox — can switch between long-range and short-range. The company says the sensor has a larger field of vision, better range and higher resolution than standard ultrasonic sensors.
That could mean the eyes and ears of the vehicle get an attractive, pimple-free face.
“Our goal here is to replace the ultrasonic sensors,” Hurley said, noting that consumers — especially those who just spent $70,000 on a new high-tech vehicle — often prefer electronics that function invisibly.
“The bumpers have become really the instrument panels that the users don't understand,” he said.