By on September 6, 2010

More than 150 little sensors are used in a single luxury car. That means a mess of wires, even if those sensors are talking to the car computer via a CAN bus. Those sensors need power. There’s more than a kilometer of cables for sending power to the sensors alone. Imagine what would happen without those wires: The car would be lighter. Cheaper to produce. And the sensors would go dead. Not if Toyota, Panasonic and 20 other Japanese companies get their way.

Those companies have joined forces to build electronic parts that generate power themselves. How? They convert small amounts of energy from vibrations, body heat and dim light into electricity. The companies want to debut the powerless parts within two to three years, says The Nikkei [sub]

The companies have joined forces under a consortium established by an NTT Data-affiliated lab. They believe one of the most promising potential applications for self-powered electronic parts is automobile sensors.

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18 Comments on “Soon In A Car Near You: Powerless Sensors...”

  • avatar

    There is a big potential for weight savings in electrical systems, not to mention complexity reduction.  This is an interesting concept.  I have an hour meter that I purchased for a piece of power equipment.  It is powered by the vibration of the equipment, as it is totally self-contained.
    Controller area networks have reduced the amount of wiring clutter in cars significantly, but this now eliminates yet another piece.  It is interesting to note that in Hot Rod magazine they featured an aftermarket CAN system for the rewiring of project cars.  Really cool stuff.  For those who have ever worked on luxury cars “back in the day” when it was common for a 60 wire harness to enter the driver’s door of a Cadillac, you can appreciate what this means.

  • avatar

    Vibrations would be piezoelectrics, correct?  There’s been talk of that for years, sometimes in automotive but also for personal-area electronics.  It’s worth doing.  There’s a small-but-significant amount of energy that could be recaptured to power low-draw equipment.
    I don’ t know about the weight savings, though.  I don’t suspect the mass saved in wiring amounts to as much as, say, the difference between 16″ and 20″ rims.

  • avatar

    Sounds interesting, but “self powered” devices are not a new idea.  The idea for the self winding watch goes back to the 18th century at least.  I’m sure there are examples of mechanical devices, that use “free” or “waste” energy/motion as a power source, that are even older.  I’m not sure of how practical such an idea can be for electronic auto sensors.  Most sensors need to be online as soon as the car is started.  How is that accomplished if the car has been sitting for a long period of time, or temps are very cold?  Will new cars be equipped with sensor wake-up “slap pads” mounted on the dash?  New car starting procedure:

    Enter Car
    Fasten Seat belt
    Pound Dashboard With Fist for 10-15 Seconds to Power-Up Sensors
    Start Car

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “There’s more than a kilometer of cables for sending power to the sensors alone.”
    The CAN Bus definition provides for a power line alongside the signal lines, so there is no need for additional cables just to provide power to the sensors. If they are CAN Bus sensors, power is already there. One place, however, where self-powered sensors would make a lot of sense is the TPMS sensors in modern wheels. Are these typically self powered already, or do they use batteries?

    • 0 avatar

      Batteries. One set lasts about 5 years (or they did for me anyway – I’m sure there are complaints).
      I wish they came up with something better, like laying a loop in the wheel well that powers and reads back like it does on RFID, but does not need a globally-trackable ID.

  • avatar

    I have wondered why turbines attached under the side mirrors were not used to take advantage of the wind coming through them while the car is in motion.  That could power a good number of those items, I think.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Power generated by putting a wind turbine outside the car to capture energy from the air being displaced by the car’s forward motion would actually be provide by the car’s engine itself. Strapping a generator (aka “alternator”) directly to the engine is a more efficient way of doing so.

    • 0 avatar

      A turbine could yield a net power gain if it was deployed only when braking.   But that would just be another form of regenerative braking, which is probably best achieved through the wheels.  And there would still be a kilometer of wires.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Carmakers are going in the wrong direction. Electronics related recalls have tripled in 30-years. With dozens of microprocessors running as many as 100-million lines of code modern cars would make Rube Goldberg proud. Needlessly complex devices they perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. Toyota found out the hard way a simple gas pedal is no longer a simple gas pedal. What worthwhile purpose is served by running power windows through a Body Control Module?

    Even the most carefully written software has about one defect per 10,000 lines of code. It’s why cars often defy diagnosis and repair even with $6,000 electronic scanners. The problem is exacerbated by automakers insistence on proprietary source code. If there is a bug a small number of employees have to try to sort it out. They should strive to reduce gratuitous complexity.

    • 0 avatar

      What worthwhile purpose is served by running power windows through a Body Control Module

      Without body control modules, the wiring needed to do what a modern car does would result in a harness thicker than my arm that’s incredibly vulnerable to damage.  You think you have electrical problems now?

      Carmakers are going in the wrong direction. Electronics related recalls have tripled in 30-years

      But cars are also more reliable, problem free and cheaper to own, largely because of those electronics.  Sure, you need an expensive scanner, but you don’t need tune-ups ever three thousand miles, nor do you have to suffer the kind of compomised-harness-related problems that brought cars from the 70s, 80s and early 90s to their knees.

      Even the most carefully written software has about one defect per 10,000 lines of code.

      Yes, but modern coding practices and sensible engineering allow you to catch and compensate for logic errors, and modern electronics mean that a fix (or a 40+hp power boost) is a quick reflash away.

      Toyota’s problems haven’t even been proven to be electronics related: the only demonstrated SUA issues were due to physical obstruction (floor mats) and the pedal recall was due to stiction.  And hey, those electronics allowed them to add brake-throttle cutoff without replacing and re-engineering the throttle assembly and brake system.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree that car electronics are a good thing, not a bad thing. They do have their problems, true. But on balance, they bring increased reliability and performance, and reduced cost.

      Good point, though, about gratuitous complexity. When I think of all the expensive bells and whistles on our newer car, and how much they cost and how easily they break, it makes me mad.

    • 0 avatar
      Richard B

      Proprietary code doesn’t seem to make much more sense that proprietary screw threads. I appreciate the increased efficiency and durability but some elegance is also a good thing.

  • avatar

    There may be some places where it saves weight, but in a lot of places, the tiny bit of wiring necessary can’t weigh any more than the self contained power generator on the chip.

  • avatar

    I can’t see the savings to weight being THAT significant.  Having upgraded stereos and added electronics to every car I’ve owned since 1985 I’ve found that the wire may be more numerous, but it is far thinner than ever before.  I see the savings coming in manufacturing by not having to pull the wiring, and increased profits for dealerships in the replacement of these sensors.

  • avatar

    All in all there will be sensors hiding in places where Sun dont shine, the sensor itself may cost $5.00 but changing it will take the whole engine , transmission out!
    I heard an interesting story, a fellow used to work as the service advisor in a jag/Merc/Volvo dealer.
    He told me to change the interior heater core of a Vee12 is close to $1600 for a bang up job and not Koshered by the Jaguar bible, and to do a kosher job , with the fee the dealer could afford a real Rabbi to come down to bless the car.  U better sit down and have a swig of Chivas Regal for Medicinal purpose.  A proper job is <$9,000.
    let start the bang up job, u need to cut the fire wall behind the engine, so the piece of fire can be removed, as the heater core can be exposed, install a new one then MIG weld her back, paint her with same color of paint so it doesnt look like it had been violated!
    The proper job obviously one had to pull the dash out pieces by pieces, and the wire loom u need to identify them or else if its crossed u get to see some real expensive fire work.
    recently I help out a fellow to look at  an Acura trans, some how the 3 plugs were identical, whoever did this mixed up 2 goes to first, second speed solenoid with the main turbo speed ( or speed of the torque converter out put ), the shift was flaring and no 1st gear, he had to keep fart around measure each plug’s resistance, eventually he felt one of the were switched, he plug them in right order and the car shifted it just like what it should be.
    Anyways, the more gizmos the more headache it can be, but we can go back to carb system, where the emission will go sky high,
    one story I heard was BMW cannot shift out of 2nd, and in gimp mode to go anywhere, they look everywhere, in the end somehow they unplug the radio and found out thats the culprit,
    shifts perfect again, reason the radio shorted out the computer, so ECM cannot go on her normal function task!
    In the old days if a radio has shorted out it wont stranded u in a God forsaken place until thy Kingdom come.
    but now is happening more & more often, pretty soon the car is telling u that u not sitting well, u can be sick and summon the Doctor on your behalf.

  • avatar

    The question is how long will these self power generating sensor last Vs an extra wire to power them up?
    An extra wire should last forever as long as nothing to cut , chafe her.
    The way most manufacturer is heading is to force the owner to write the car off  in < 10yrs, as there’ll be no support by either software or hardware. So your prized wheel pretty well have to head for the junk pile after so long.
    Not long ago my fnd bought a used Prius from a taxi co. which they gave up  sold to him for 6 hundred, he put in a new trans and ECU ( i think ), is running like a Swiss clock now. His car doesnt have to go thru emissions here ( aircare bc) even though his cat light is glowing brighter by the day , a small piece of duct tape will fix it. Dont try to smash the bulb, as these LED were SMT unless u wanna to destroy the whole panel!
    A piezo sensor could conk out after get shaken for so many millionth times.
    Is like James Bond’s Martini, shaken but not stirred.
    Most sensor probably has 2 wire, one power and return to relay the resistance.
    Or single wire to send the resistance.
    To put a small piezo generator there will take up more room, subject to heat and harsh environment.
    Is like my Merc one of the wheel sensor for brake pads, is shorted when park as soon as i move a few ft it will turn off the light! If to fix her properly it may costs a couple of hours, one need the mech to pull all 4 wheels to check. Modern cars will be able to plug OBD in to see which wheel is shorting out.

  • avatar

    That people is also thinking (I guess) in a wireless network. That is worrisome if not properly protected.
    Hackers could enter the system.

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