Sensors, Actuators

How MEMS sensors are changing for automotive applications

Microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensor suppliers are responding to new opportunities created by electrified and automated vehicles by developing inertial measurement units (IMUs).

By Marc Osajda April 27, 2021
Courtesy: NXP Semiconductors/SEMI

The automotive industry is changing. Our vehicles are getting electrified, connected and automated. As this trend is accelerating, it’s having an impact on how semiconductor devices, including microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors, are designed and qualified for automotive. As automotive semiconductor designers carefully consider product definition, product validation, and long-term reliability, MEMS sensor suppliers are responding to new opportunities created by electrified and automated vehicles by developing inertial measurement units (IMUs) for automated driving as well as battery pressure monitoring sensors for Li-ion EV batteries.

The most complex MEMS device of all

The automotive MEMS IMU is probably the most complex MEMS device that will be used inside a vehicle. This type of IMU is a system-in-package (SiP) comprised of multiple gyroscope and accelerometer sensing elements plus a signal processing ASIC, integrated into one package that creates an inertial sensor able to measure up to six degrees of freedom (6DoF): yaw, roll and pitch for rotational movements, and lateral, longitudinal and vertical acceleration for linear movements.

Six degrees of freedom (DoF) in a car. Courtesy: NXP Semiconductors/SEMI

Six degrees of freedom (DoF) in a car. Courtesy: NXP Semiconductors/SEMI

For vehicles with Level 3 autonomy and above (per SAE definition), the IMU is mandatory for taking over the trajectory control of the vehicle in case other sensors, such as the camera, radar or LiDAR, become impaired. Should such a failure occur, the IMU will function as a guidance sensor to bring the car to a safe stop within a short period of time and distance. The IMU is also used to control the regular movement of the car while driving in automated mode.

While IMU technology already exists for aerospace applications, there are significant challenges to adapting it for automotive. The automotive IMU requires high performance at costs that are compatible with the automotive industry. Because automotive life cycles are long, MEMS sensor suppliers must produce the device in high volume for an extended period of time. They must also guarantee the sensor’s performance and reliability over a 10- to 15-year lifetime with no maintenance or recalibration of the sensor required. Only a few MEMS suppliers have the capability and willingness to embark on this kind of journey.

Electrification is creating new applications for MEMS sensors

The conversion from internal combustion engines to electrified propulsion is going to affect the powertrain MEMS market. For example, pressure sensors used in engine management for air pressure and fuel pressure will simply go away with electrification. However, the use of large Li-ion batteries in electrified vehicles has created a new application for MEMS sensors.

Thermal runaway effects include explosions, flying parts, flames, venting and rapid temperature increase. Courtesy: NXP Semiconductors/SEMI

Thermal runaway effects include explosions, flying parts, flames, venting and rapid temperature increase. Courtesy: NXP Semiconductors/SEMI

One of the known risks of Li-ion batteries is the small probability for a battery cell to go into a thermal runaway situation that will lead to a fire. There have been several reported incidents already. When it comes to thermal runaway events, every second counts. Detecting the event as early as possible enables the vehicle safety system to take all necessary measures to warn occupants of an imminent fire and activate timely countermeasures (e.g., trigger fire extinguisher and call fire brigade) to mitigate the impact of the fire.

Published studies have shown measuring the pressure inside the battery pack is a good indication that a thermal runaway is starting. The outgassing of a battery cell, plus a sudden rise in temperature, will increase pressure inside the battery pack, which will generate a pressure pulse.

To detect such a pressure pulse, a MEMS pressure sensor must permanently measure the pressure inside the pack. It must also report to the battery management system any suspicious change in pressure, independent of atmospheric pressure changes. It’s important to keep this kind of sensor on all the time to detect any pressure anomaly in the system, even when the vehicle is completely off. NXP has developed a pressure sensor to specifically address this new safety application in EVs, and several automotive manufacturers are already using this solution.

The quest for zero defects

While the automotive industry is targeting zero fatalities as its ultimate goal, the semiconductor industry and module suppliers are targeting zero defects for each and every semiconductor device. For safety-critical automotive MEMS sensors complying with the Automotive Electronics Council (AEC) Q100 qualification for semiconductors, it’s necessary but clearly not sufficient to guarantee a zero defects production launch and long-term reliability of the device.

NXP developed Above and Beyond (AaB), a methodology that studies advanced reliability and robustness well ahead of the device’s qualification and production release. Based on risk-mitigation analysis, AaB consist of extensive testing, such as test-to-fail, corner lot testing, and new use-case testing combined with advanced statistics, all of which help NXP understand how these different parameters interact with each other.

As sensor suppliers must integrate AaB into their project planning, it does add time and cost to the project. The upside is that this early investment pays off as long as weaknesses in the device can be detected and corrected before a production launch. Field failures, on the other hand, can lead to unplanned redesign and requalification of a device. Worst-case, they can lead to a recall campaign that costs a huge amount of money. We’re systematically using the AaB methodology at NXP for safety-critical MEMS sensors because its potential benefits far outweigh its costs.

– This article originally appeared on SEMI’s blog. SEMI is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Marc Osajda
Author Bio: Marc Osajda is responsible for European automotive MEMS sensors business development activities at NXP Semiconductors.