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Electronic component supplier DigiKey sees increasing interest in 48-volt electronics, silicon carbide, and driver assistance systems.

Dan Carney

March 22, 2024

7 Min Read
Automotive vision systems locate and classify objects in their field of view.
Automotive vision systems locate and classify objects in their field of view.DigiKey

At a Glance

  • 48-volt systems
  • Silicon Carbide and Gallium Arsenide chips
  • Artificial intelligence

With so much change and turmoil in the automotive industry, it can be hard to guess what will happen next. Electronic component supplier DigiKey is well-positioned to spot industry trends based on what its customers are ordering, so Design News put in a call to DigiKey technical content developer Nick Westra to get his predictions on technology trends in the automotive industry.

What are the current challenges of engineers, designers, and manufacturers working on modern vehicles? Are any solutions to these on the horizon?

Nick Westra: For the modern automotive or transportation engineer, there are several challenges in designing the next vehicle. One of the most complex problems is the system integration between all the individual subsystems found in the modern car. This is a major problem that must be managed at the earliest stages to ensure reliable networking between all the systems. One upcoming solution is a decentralized network that has control circuitry and integrated circuits (ICs) close to the point of use communicating with each other over a common controller area network (CAN) bus data network. This solution can cut down on the complexity and cost of the data wiring harness and manufacturing time needed for installation.


What are the key opportunities for the automotive industry and how might they affect consumer behavior and preferences?

Nick Westra: One of the key opportunities in the automotive industry is the switch over to the 48-volt bus architecture. Instead of the classic 12-volt system found in most cars on the road today, the 48-volt system promises higher efficiency with less power loss, and that means longer ranges and faster charging times, making electric vehicles a bit closer to the common internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Another benefit is that at higher voltages, the complex power wiring harness can be simplified, further reducing weight and cost. There are some vehicles on the market already that have made the switch over to the 48-volt system, but many more still need to be redesigned to take advantage of the opportunity it can provide. Any change that gets people on the road sooner and at a cheaper price compared to the competition is welcomed by drivers and manufacturers.

What are some solutions/trends in the automotive/transportation industry that excite you?

Nick Westra: For me, the most exciting development in the transportation space is the adoption of wideband gap semiconductors for vehicle electrification efforts. These silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN)-based devices can operate at higher voltages, higher switching frequencies and higher temperatures compared to traditional silicon-based semiconductor devices, all in a smaller footprint as well, making wideband gap devices perfect for high power applications such as motor drives and LiDAR sensing.

Nick Westra: As more companies switch their focus to developing electric vehicles, the need for suitable components grows as well, and DigiKey is well-suited to support these ongoing efforts. Our wide selection of power products ranges from power distribution and power safety and protection to battery management and circuit protection. We also offer top-line power and signal connectors, found both on and off-board, that are compact and rugged enough for automotive applications while still delivering enough power to charge batteries, distribute power, or systems networking.

How does technology improve the safety and comfort of modern vehicles? How does it change commuting trends?

Nick Westra: Since the invention of the modern vehicle, technology has always aimed to deliver a safer and more comfortable driving experience. With the growth and widespread use of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) in modern automobiles, drivers can reduce the areas that need constant attention and avoid collisions. Advancements in tire pressure monitoring, blind spot detection, lane monitoring and adaptive cruise control all provide a level of automation that allows drivers to remain focused on staying on the road. Sensors such as LiDAR and radar allow onboard computers to map out the vehicle's surroundings and, when integrated into the whole ADAS system, allow for increased protection and a smoother driving experience.

How does AI/ML play a growing role in the future of sustainable mobility?

Nick Westra: The use of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) in sustainable mobility is one of the more promising applications to come from the recent growth of the ML market. By studying travel paths and traffic conditions over a period of time, it is possible to find the most efficient route between two points. The widespread use of distributed intelligence enabled by microcontrollers and embedded systems to manage data and process it locally to the device and close to the person allows for more efficient and smarter devices and transportation. Soon, your vehicle may be able to independently plan your trip to be as efficient and time-saving as possible.

What are the most interesting use cases of AI that you have seen in smart automotive so far?

Nick Westra: One of the most interesting applications of AI in the automotive field is autonomous driving. SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers) states that vehicles are considered self-driving at SAE Level 3 and above, which means the vehicle makes most of the driving decisions, even if someone is sitting in the driver’s seat. Currently, only a few vehicles reach this level of automation, and then only in certain conditions or locations. The place for in-vehicle AI is to close that last bit of the automation gap to enable it to work in all operating conditions and locations. Aside from the obvious computing power needed, the need for sensors around the car to take in and process environmental data will be of the utmost importance. Technologies like LiDAR, radar, ultrasonics, and computer-based machine vision will all be needed to ensure the vehicle can sense what is happening around it at all times.

Nick Westra: The widespread and distributed network known as the Internet of Things (IoT) is going to play a much greater role in the vehicles of tomorrow. The idea of vehicle-to-everything is going to be a critical concept if user devices, such as a cell phone, will need to play music, navigate, and connect to the power grid itself to manage where and when to charge batteries or provide power to buildings.

How does DigiKey support suppliers developing new technology for modern vehicles?

Nick Westra: DigiKey has a global customer base and the ability to reach out and ship a package to nearly any point on the planet.

Suppliers choose DigiKey to connect thousands of customers to their products, software, and solutions daily. From startups to Fortune 500 companies and everything in between, we offer a variety of programs that complement automotive technology businesses and put the right products in front of the right people.

DigiKey boasts a high-visibility website with millions of global visits per month and an established global customer base of over 880,000. Our state-of-the-art fulfillment center delivers packages around the world faster than nearly any other distributor, and our export compliance services, language translation, and local currency support make it easy to reach more customers globally.  

How does DigiKey support engineers and designers working on modern vehicles and infrastructure?

Nick Westra: DigiKey offers the world’s largest selection of electronic components in stock and available for immediate shipment. Beyond the products that drive automotive and infrastructure technology innovation, DigiKey also supports engineers and designers with a wealth of digital solutions, robust tools, and a suite of technical content to make their jobs more efficient.

DigiKey provides customers with a frictionless digital interface, saving them time so they can focus on designing and building. We offer the newest technologies and components used to build the machines and devices that will propel the automotive industry into the future.

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