Tuesday 30 May 2017

Car Electronics

With this quick article, I hope to challenge and encourage as many young Africans as possible to consider pursuing careers in the field of electronics, and in its sub-field of car electronics in particular. I also hope that this might somehow get to some African leaders who are in the position to affect policies that encourage these youngsters in those pursuits.

My desire is that our beautiful continent begins to produce more and more young engineers that can help us to reduce our over-dependence on the rest of the world (and especially Asia) for electronic equipment and appliances.

The Curious Social Scientist

I know that I am just a bloody social scientist, and I hated science subjects back in school. So what could I possibly know about electronics?

Well, it turns out, I have somehow gotten really interested in many areas of technology and science these days. It really started with my infatuation with the Semantic Web, then solar energy and future battery technology (which I call #StoredSun). So when I first learned about electric cars needing advanced batteries, I became hooked on the technology behind those as well.

Electronics For The Lay Man

So my current understanding is that electronics is an offspring of both Electrical Engineering, and the science of Physics.  
In electronics, engineers are mainly building devices that exploit and manipulate the power of electricity and electric charges. Please if you have an even simpler definition that even the dumbest social scientist or artist can understand, I would love it if you shared that definition in the comments below. Thank you.

So, when you look into my definition (hopefully it is correct), you can see that the idea is to competently understand how electricity affects various objects so that we can make those objects work for us in a useful and safe way. The more engineers learn about the nature of electricity and the way it affects physical objects, the better they can build gadgets that make our lives easier.

Africa & Electronics

But if these things can be learned, then why aren't we learning them? Or why is the enabling environment seemingly non-existent in most of the African continent? What is our private sector waiting for? Why do our governments not care about stimulating such interests?

There are so many areas where the study and practice of electronics can be applied to generate wealth for our people. Among these are areas such as manufacture of mobile phones, computers, Ultra HD television sets, digital media players, most hospital equipment, and even home appliances like washing machines and microwave ovens.

I am not talking about being proud of watching the news and hearing a report about one solitary African that built one electronic device. Or of hearing of one computer that was completely manufactured in one African country.

Those are good news indeed. But what we want is an entire burgeoning industry.

However, I am going to focus on one particular area that I am certain is going to present a huge opportunity for Africans who will eventually go into this field:
I am talking about car electronics.

Electronics In Cars And Electronic Cars

Statista estimates that there are approximately 1.2 billion cars and commercial vehicles in use around the world today. Practically all of these cars have some form of electronic system or another at work within them.
In fact, as the automobile industry has matured, we have seen that cars are being built with electronic systems increasingly replacing the mechanical systems within them.

By these mechanical systems being replaced, I am referring to most of the cars that we see on our roads, and are typically built with an internal combustion engine.
In these ICE cars, the engine runs by burning a mixture of air and fuel to produce the thrust of the car.
Engineers achieve this by using techniques from smaller divisions of mechanics like Fluid Mechanics, Dynamics and Kinematics (i.e. the area of mechanics that deals with gears and gear boxes)

But like I said already, a lot of these systems are either being replaced by electronic systems, or being enhanced by mixing in electronics with the mechanical aspects.

Car Electronics

Car Electronics range from transmission ( gear shifting) electronics to things like car entertainment systems and electronic braking systems.
Also take note of the current hype around electronic intelligent parking systems and self-driving systems in cars these days.

And with other technologies coming in from the computer and internet world, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, it is easy to see the direction in which the automobile industry is moving.
Things are getting more and more electronic than ever before.

A typical electronic car stereo in a modern car. Image courtesy of https://www.clublexus.com/forums/ct-200h-model-2011-present/656439-loving-the-car-stereo.html
What used to only have its place in the car's stereo system, now features in other parts like seats, the steering, the transmission, the air bag, the doors, even the glass.

Electronic devices first started to appear in the insides of cars, but eventually started to spread outward to underneath the hood, and who knows where else tomorrow. Every component in the future automobile could potentially be completely electronic. 

Therefore if you are young engineering and science student in Africa today, I would strongly encourage you to seriously look into this area as a major goal before, during, and after you even get into the university or before you choose your major.

It is good to consider the number of cars currently in use around the world, as mentioned above. Then consider that this number is expected to increase tremendously as populations continue to grow in third world countries, and the size of their economies grow likewise. But also because more people around the world get educated, gain global access and exposure through the world wide web, and become more sophisticated in their needs as standards of living continue upwards.

Electric Cars

Therefore as cars and buses and trucks have evolved over the years, a lot of the working parts within them have steadily evolved into electronic parts.
But what is more profound is the fact that the actual engines of the cars themselves are now becoming completely electric.
Tesla Model S. Full Electric Vehicle. Seen here plugged into its charging kit that easily works with any AC outlet in your home, office or anywhere. Photo courtesy of Tesla.com 

Many of these electric powered cars today still use a combination of electric and mechanical drive trains - aptly called Hybrid cars.
Yet, recent popular participants like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla cars have come out as purely electric.
The success of Nissan's Leaf, and the huge success of the Tesla brand is pushing automobile manufacturers to look in that direction for the future.

One of the trends that is driving this paradigm shift is the hybrid car phenomenon I already mentioned above.

There are indeed already many hybrid cars in Europe and America that use a combination of an internal combustion engine as well as electric power from a large battery to propel the car and economize fuel. These hybrids have steadily evolved, and modern hybrids are getting better and better at minimizing the need for fuel.
But this evolution is progressive.

From HEV to PHEV to EV

Once upon a time, HEVs or Hybrid Electric Vehicles simply used a large battery that is charged by the power produced by the ICE (internal combustion Engine) engine, and then gives back that power to the car to help reduce the car’s reliance on fuel, and save lots of money on fuel costs.

The next phase saw Plug-In Electric Vehicles or PHEVs, which used larger batteries, and charged these batteries BOTH with power from the ICE engine, and also through charging cables that bring in power from any electric source including the AC outlet of your home.

PHEVs are usually more energy efficient than HEVs. Depending on how far the car is being driven, most PHEVs will go many miles without needing to take power from their ICE engines or burn any fuel.
As a matter of fact, the logic behind a PHEV is that the fuel-based engine should only serve as a backup.
Chevrolet's Volt. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (or PHEV). Image curtesy of http://www.hybridcars.com/2017-chevy-volt-will-offer-adaptive-cruise-control/ 

These (PHEVs) in my opinion, are the critical bridge to the future. It is why many are convinced that it is only a matter of time that fuel consuming cars will become completely impractical and unappealing to the consumer.

You can watch an ongoing experiment of this PHEV -> EV shift in the following example:

General Motors of America, who had first built the successful Chevrolet Volt (a PHEV), are going a step further with a new all-electric car they call the Bolt (a full-EV car).
The success and popularity of the Volt (which was designed by a Nigerian Jelani Aliyu) is expected to boost the transition of Hybrid electric vehicles (or HEV) into Plug-In Electric Hybrid Vehicles (or PHEV).

So the progression looks like this:
ICE -> HEV -> PHEV -> EV
As you move from left to right, there is a decreasing reliance on fuel, and a greater reliance on plugging into electricity.
But when you think about the ease and comfort of charging your phones and laptops at home or at work, then it begins to become clearer that this progression is almost certainly going to happen.
The question is, "how soon"?

Perhaps the answer is in the fact that there is this new and unprecedented and clearly authentic appeal for electric cars (thanks mostly to Tesla Motors). Plus the fact that battery technology is developing at a fast pace, and batteries are growing in their ability to pack more and more power into smaller spaces, while working on increasing their life-cycles and charging speeds.
Also the fact that self-driving cars are on the horizon (thanks to Tesla, Google, Apple and Uber) and EV technology seems to be the the only suitable match for them.
These scenarios all collaborate to speed up the eventual extinction of gasoline powered cars. So my answer would be, "sooner than you think".

So my question would be; at what point should Africa join this revolution?

Now, for sure!

We need to encourage our kids to acquire skills in electrical engineering, in electronics as a whole, and in car electronics in particular.
There are immediate gains that could come from developing electronic systems and devices within existing ICE cars. But there are even huger rewards that will come from taking part in building the PHEVs and full electric cars (EVs) of the near future.

We need African governments to aggressively incentivize engineering and technology studies to make this happen as quickly as possible. To produce Africans like Jelani Aliyu. a new breed of young Africans that will aspire to not only do auto design, but also electric powertrain engineering and battery charging innovations.

I honestly believe that every time a major technological revolution is about to occur, it potentially gives those who were previously disadvantaged a chance to close the gap a little.
The transition to the new paradigm is expected to prove quite painful for incumbent big car manufacturers like Toyota, Mercedes, Ford, etc.
Therefore we, Africa, who had not been serious participants in then old automotive shindigs, should gleefully march into the new one.

Please, let us think hard about this!


Finally, if you are a frequent reader of my future-oriented articles here on Digital Africa, you may have noticed that I am a huge fan of Tesla Motors.
Here is an article from the CEO of Tesla that I think may inspire you the way it has inspired an old social scientist like me to become an enthusiastic advocate of science and technology. (>>> see that short article here <<<)
I wrote an article on LinkedIn about Elon Musk that reveals some depth of the vertically integrated empire he is building. (>>> See that one here <<<)

Also if you are a frequent reader of many of my future oriented articles here on Digital Africa, you would quickly understand that I am trying to get you to prepare yourself or your children and grand children for such a time.
Our student engineers should understand the kind of opportunity that could easily await them in this brave new world of electronic devices and electronic transportation systems, if only they make the right choices today.
But also, if we and our leaders make the right choices for them!

Friends, the internet hasn't just changed the world. It is changing it even more still.
And not so many are paying attention to these current changes. There is much to learn, but there is indeed huge incentive for us to learn it. Please let us push our leaders in this direction because whatever wealth we may have from natural resources (like oil) is only a shadow of the past.
Think about it.