March 12, 2011

Freescale Semiconductor: Technology will predict battery failure

There's one thing certain when it comes to car batteries in Arizona: They die often and they die quickly.

But Freescale Semiconductor is working on new technology it hopes will take the surprise factor out of dying batteries.

The Austin-based company recently rolled out an intelligent battery sensor for cars that automatically checks a battery's health and warns the motorist when it is about to fail.

The sensor is Freescale's effort to bring the common lead-acid battery up to par electronically with other advancements in automotive functions, including engine control, power steering, transmission and even windows and sunroofs.

"This technology is brand-new, but I would expect that there will be a (dash) light that says 'check battery' or something like this that would illuminate," said Paul Pickering, product-definition engineer at Freescale's Analog, Mixed Signal and Power Division group in Tempe.

Freescale and some other manufacturers are just beginning to develop integrated circuits to help automakers predict when a battery will fail. To determine how a battery ages, the sensors monitor voltage, temperature and the amount of current drawn from the battery for the electrical system. The data is taken several times a second.

Besides working with gas-powered cars, the technology will be helpful for the growing number of hybrid and all-electric vehicles that feature start-stop systems that automatically shut down and restart the engine to reduce the amount of time it spends idling, providing better fuel economy and less emissions.

Freescale's sensor mounts on the battery. Batteries that feature the technology will come with a small integrated circuit and circuit board that's part of the battery's positive terminal. Two microchips will take measurements, and a microcontroller will use software to check the battery's health relative to a perfectly functioning battery.

"We've gone far from the old days of carburetors where you turn a screw and things work. Now, everything is controlled by microcontrollers and electronics," Pickering said. "But the battery is pretty much the same as it always was . . . a 12-volt battery that is sort of the last resort for all of these electronics. It's become more and more important to automakers to really understand how batteries age."

Most Arizona motorists would likely agree.

AAA Arizona has said car batteries have an average life expectancy of just 22 months here.

The state's extreme summer temperatures make battery-related failures one of the most common calls for its roadside assistance service. In 2010 alone, AAA responded to more than 83,000 battery-related calls statewide.

Brian Mattas with Scottsdale-based IC Insights, a company that does semiconductor market research, said he and other analysts have long wondered why a microchip company hadn't tackled the lifespan issues of car batteries. But technology like Freescale's hasn't been implemented widely enough to attract market attention, he said.

"If this actually is something that can be applied and work in a way I envision it, I think that would be pretty beneficial," Mattas said. "Just give me something like on my cellphone battery. Give me five bars and show me when it's at four bars or three bars."

IC Insights predicts the automotive integrated-circuit market will grow 12 percent this year to $17.2 billion thanks to the rapid motorization of China and the recovery of the U.S. automotive market.

The increase follows a 45 percent increase in automotive integrated-circuit sales in 2010, which halted a two-year slide in the market.

Pickering says Freescale has received worldwide interest in the battery monitor, including from automakers in China, Europe and the United States. He declined to name them for competitive reasons.

He says the company's sensor will hold up better than those of competitors because it is the first one to be fully certified by the automotive industry following a rigorous set of tests that showed it will hold up in noise, vibration and temperature.

"You've got to be able to work from Death Valley (California) in the summer all the way to North Dakota in the winter," Pickering said.

by John Yantis The Arizona Republic Mar. 11, 2011 12:00 AM

Freescale Semiconductor: Technology will predict battery failure

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