Printed Electronics in Electrification and Automated Driving

2024-05-14 17:13:40
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Electrification, automation and saturation of car ownership are triggering a technological revolution in the automotive industry.

These automotive meta-trends are driving dramatic changes in the demand for electronic components and provide a wealth of opportunities for printed electronics to capitalize on.

Historically, printed electronics have established a close relationship with the automotive industry, with printed force sensors pioneering passenger safety through seat occupancy and seat belt detection. As a result, the automotive industry continues to hold the largest share of the global printed and flexible sensors market, which an IDTechEx report on the topic assesses to be worth $421 million by 2024. However, if the automotive industry is to continue to be a reliable source of revenue printed electronics technology providers must adapt to address the emerging technological challenges facing the future of mobility.



Emerging applications for printed and flexible sensors in automotive applications. 


Enhancing Self-driving Cars with Printed Electronics
As the level of vehicle autonomy increases, the number and distribution of required spatial mapping sensors continues to grow, requiring continuous performance improvements to ensure passenger safety. Emerging printed electronics technologies can augment these sensors, extending detection bandwidth and maximizing reliability during operation.

Transparent conductive films (TCFs) are being developed for heating and demisting LiDAR sensor panels, ensuring that their function is not interfered with by external environmental conditions. Properties such as high transparency and low haze are important for demisting. These characteristics can be easily adjusted using a variety of material options available for TCF, including carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires.

IDTechEx sees printed heat as the primary application for transparent conductive films. This is due to diminishing growth prospects for capacitive touch sensing applications. Innovations in thin-film coating technology have led to the dominance of indium tin oxide (ITO) in touch sensing applications, almost completely replacing TCF.

Looking ahead, printed electronics could play a more active role in advanced autonomous driving. Emerging semiconductor materials (e.g., quantum dots) printed directly onto traditional silicon image sensor arrays can extend detection range and sensitivity deeper into the infrared region. Enhancing existing image sensor technologies with increased spectral range could facilitate hybrid silicon sensors to compete with existing InGaAs detectors.

Printed Sensors Hold Promise for Fine-Grained Battery Health Monitoring
Vehicle electrification is driving the continued development and evolution of electronic management systems, particularly in batteries and electric drivetrains. There is strong market appeal for technologies that improve vehicle efficiency, range and lifetime while reducing charging time.

Printed pressure and temperature sensors measure battery cell expansion and heat distribution, providing fine-grained physical data that can be used to optimize battery deployment and charging. In addition, hybrid printed sensors that incorporate integrated printed heating elements promise to be a proactive solution to battery temperature issues. IDTechEx estimates that printed sensor-enabled battery deployment and charging optimization could save up to $3,000 per vehicle.

Uncertainty remains as to whether the electrification trend will correspond to an increased demand for physical sensors in EV batteries, given the availability of existing electronic readouts to manage deployment. Virtual sensors also pose a threat, where AI-enabled software models can interpret data to predict and simulate physical sensor function without discrete components. However, emerging regulations regarding safety and sensor redundancy may favor measurable metrics, and automakers will continue to adopt physical sensors. IDTechEx predicts that virtual sensors are unlikely to replace physical sensors as long as low-cost sensors remain widely available.

Embedding Printed Electronics in the Automobile of the Future
IDTechEx predicts that global car sales will saturate over the next decade, with automakers increasingly looking for premium features and technological innovations to differentiate themselves from the competition. In-vehicle technology will be very popular - as the place where passengers live and interact with the vehicle the most.

Lighting components are becoming a significant differentiator, described by Volkswagen's chief designer as "the new chrome". The use of in-mold structured electronics (IMSE) allows for the integration of embedded lighting components using existing manufacturing processes. 3D electronics are intrinsically attractive for automotive integration because the functional layers are comfortable and lightweight, and can be easily embedded into existing aesthetic elements.

Despite the strong push, the adoption of in-mold electronics in automotive interiors has been slow. This is due to the challenge of meeting automotive qualification requirements, as well as stiff competition with less sophisticated alternatives such as applying functional films to thermoformed parts. 

The Future of Printed Electronics in Automotive Applications
Just as printed force sensors heralded early passenger safety systems, printed electronics promises to underpin the next generation of innovations for the automobile of the future. But this time, the competition will be fierce. Critical cost requirements must be met, while the new functionality required must address existing challenges faced by manufacturers. Printed electronics can play a role in supporting emerging electrification and autonomous mobility, for example by enhancing LiDAR sensors or optimizing battery deployment. There will continue to be a growing demand for technologies that enhance the passenger experience and vehicle aesthetics, for which printed electronics can provide low-power, lightweight lighting solutions.

The continued involvement of Tier 1 suppliers and manufacturers continues to make the automotive industry key to growth opportunities in the printed sensors market - IDTechEx forecasts the market to total $960 million by 2034.

Strong partnerships between material suppliers and printed electronics technology providers complement the highly vertically integrated automotive value chain between Tier 1 suppliers and OEMs. Utilizing printed technology to provide solutions that integrate into existing manufacturing processes and designs is critical. In the medium term, the printed electronics technologies most likely to realize revenue potential are those that can adapt to the emerging challenges of service known to the automotive industry.

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