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Are We There Yet? How Optical Chips Are Setting The Pace On The Road To Automotive Innovation

04 May 2022

There’s no doubt about it: in the not-too-distant future, cars are going to have a lot more technology packed into them. A heck of a lot more. Could optical chip technology – aka integrated photonics – be the answer to automotive manufacturers’ combined need for smaller and more energy efficient hardware?

Electric vehicles and autonomous driving continue to make newspaper headlines – for very obvious reasons. They speak to our hopes (lower emissions), fears (‘the robots’ taking over), and – let’s be honest – our thirst for innovation. 

Challenges in automotive

Hyperbole aside, for automotive manufacturers, there are some very real and pressing challenges to address. From changes in mobility patterns and city infrastructure; the question of public vs. private ownership; as well as issues of safety, design, and mechanics. And that’s even before we unpick the impact of COVID on consumer car usage.

One thing’s for sure though; meeting these challenges means packing even more functionality into our beloved automobiles. But in order to do that effectively, auto manufacturers need to look beyond the standard tech on offer. 

As a result, more and more manufacturers are turning their attention to the use of optical chips, also known as Photonic Integrated Circuits (or PICs) – which are fast becoming an essential pitstop on the Automotive Innovation Roadmap.

The impact of integrated photonics

From a technical perspective, when you look at PIC technology’s use cases – quantum computing, lidar, biosensors, FBG sensors (more on them below) to name a few – it doesn’t take long for the casual observer to veer into some very complex areas. 

But when you consider both the pace of change and the need for increased accuracy – particularly in terms of safety and navigation – as well as the overall influx of data in vehicles and the infrastructure needed, it’s clear that the automotive sector’s requirements are growing exponentially. As a result, the time to get ahead of the curve is, well, right now – no matter how complex the tech underpinning it is. 

Already, integrated photonics are having the biggest impact on two key areas within automotive: Electric Vehicle (EV) power electronics and sensors; and Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) in autonomous vehicles. But what exactly is integrated photonics?

What exactly are ‘photonics’?

Without getting too deep into the technical weeds, integrated photonic circuits use subatomic particles (photons) to generate, process, and detect light. They’re used in fiber optic cables – the kind that deliver internet to our homes – mainly because photons are capable of high bandwidth, are unaffected by electromagnetic interference, and consume a lot less energy too.

As a result, PIC-powered devices are found across all kinds of communication, sensor, and digital devices. Plus, unlike electronic components, they can be made from a broader range of materials: not just silicon. 

Transformative potential

While there are lots of buzzwords associated with integrated photonics, it’s important to keep in mind that they’re not the theoretical imaginings of a futuristic sci-fi story. Integrated photonics – in the form of light-powered optical chips – have a real world purpose here and now.

And that’s why they’re set to transform the automotive industry.

Accelerating autonomy in the automotive sector

As mentioned, PIC tech has great potential in both autonomous driving and electric vehicles, and within those categories, there are two main areas with the most potential – FMCW Lidar and FBG sensors. 

FMCW Lidar

Like its radio wave-based counterpart, radar, lidar is predominantly used for object detection. It scans any environment with a laser beam and detects the return signal to measure distance and speed. Used in 3D modelling, measurement, mapping, lidar is also ideal for autonomous car control and navigation.

Its FMCW variety (Frequency-Modulated Coherent Wave) is basically a more advanced form of lidar: offering higher sensitivity and an ability to measure speed at the same time.  

Until now, the challenge of bringing an FMCW solution to market has been a lack of low-cost, high-volume, high-performance, lightweight components – the kind that manufacturers can easily fit into new vehicles. But integrated photonics technology is developing rapidly thanks to interest from major automotive manufacturers. 

FBG Sensors

Most fiber optic sensor systems today make use of Fiber Bragg Grating (FBG) technology. Why? Because it offers numerous advantages – a small size, fast response, distributed sensing, and immunity to electromagnetic fields. As a result, force, pressure, temperature, and strain can all be simultaneously measured with extreme accuracy; all essential in the automotive sector.

One of the biggest benefits of using integrated photonics in FBG systems is the ability to add a lot of tech features into very compact systems. As the amount of wiring, sensors, and processors increase, so does a vehicle’s overall weight, which, in turn, leads to a reduction in its efficiency. 

Not the case with integrated photonics. A single fiber can be used to measure many different locations within a vehicle, reducing the weight, wiring, and number of sensors significantly. 

Combined with other communication technologies, such as wireless and single pair ethernet, vehicles will get lighter and more efficient – with the right materials.

A Technological Turning Point For Vehicle Manufacturers

We are on the precipice of change within the automotive industry. Multiple technologies are rapidly coming to maturity and pushing the boundaries of innovation.

For vehicle manufacturers, embracing innovation doesn’t just mean designing concept cars for tomorrow – it’s about understanding how to deliver the best in-car features and functionality sooner rather than later.

A key role in automotive innovation

As we see it, integrated photonics have a key role to play. As the electronic components of cars increase and the move to full electrification continues, PIC technology will experience decreasing costs as mass manufacturing expands.

At this moment, almost all imagined scenarios could become reality. It’s clear that the availability of more sophisticated technology is only going to drive digital acceleration across the sector significantly. 

As part of an ongoing mission to champion PIC technology in many different sectors, Netherlands-based growth accelerator, PhotonDelta, has created the Integrated Photonics Automotive Roadmap – a clear overview of the automotive industry’s current trends and market conditions.

Click here to download your copy of the Integrated Photonics Automotive Roadmap >