- Open Access
Hard macrocells for DC/DC converter in automotive embedded mechatronic systems
© Saponara. 2016
- Received: 24 March 2016
- Accepted: 15 July 2016
- Published: 1 September 2016
A novel configurable DC/DC converter architecture, to be integrated as hard macrocell in automotive embedded systems, is proposed in the paper. It aims at realizing an intelligent voltage regulator. With respect to the state of the art, the challenge is the integration into an automotive-qualified chip of several advanced features like dithering of switching frequency, nested control loops with both current and voltage feedback, asynchronous hysteretic control for low power mode, slope control of the power FET gate driver, and diagnostic block against out-of-range current or voltage or temperature conditions. Moreover, the converter macrocell can be connected to the in-vehicle digital network, exchanging with the main vehicle control unit status/diagnostic flags and commands. The proposed design can be configured to work both in step-up and step-down modes, to face a very wide operating input voltage range from 2.5 to 60 V and absolute range from −0.3 to 70 V. The main target is regulating all voltages required in the emerging hybrid/electric vehicles where, besides the conventional 12 V DC bus, also a 48 V DC bus is present. The proposed design supports also digital configurability of the output regulated voltage, through a programmable divider, and of the coefficients of the proportional-integrative controller inside the nested control loops. Fabricated in 0.35 μm CMOS technology, experimental measurements prove that the IC can operate in harsh automotive environments since it meets stringent requirements in terms of electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection, operating temperature range, out-of-range current, or voltage conditions.
- Embedded control systems
- Architectures for DC/DC converters
- Automotive electronics
- Intelligent power management
- In-vehicle networking
Automotive electronic systems are evolving as a network of embedded control units (ECU) implementing sensor and/or actuator interfacing plus digital signal processing techniques for a wide range of applications. Embedded electronics is used both for non-safety-critical functions (e.g., infotainment, user interface, driver/passenger comfort) and for safety-critical ones such as the control of propulsion, transmission, steering, braking, and vehicle dynamics. For safety-critical applications, stringent requirements have to be met in terms of extended temperature range, electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection, diagnostic against out-of-range current, and voltage or temperature conditions. Both high-voltage power electronic circuits and low-voltage signal processing and networking circuits have to be integrated within the same embedded mechatronic unit. Particularly, in emerging hybrid and electric vehicles, multiple voltage domains have to be managed [1–3]: 24 or 48 V for electric/hybrid propulsion and power-demanding mechatronic loads and 12 V for conventional on-board electronic sub-systems. From these values, also supply levels of few volts have to be generated for low-power components such as sensors and their analog and mixed-signal front-end, and digital circuitry for processing, memory, and networking. Due to phenomena like cranking at vehicle start or over-voltages, the input battery voltage can be reduced below 5 V or can increase up to 60 V. Therefore, both step-down and step-up capabilities are required to the DC/DC voltage regulation system.
Another key automotive application requiring configurable DC/DC converters is LED lighting: typically, strings of multiple LEDs are used where, depending on the type of light (front, rear, left, and right), and hence, the string length, an output voltage from few volts to tens of V is required. For example, a string of high brightness LED, each operating with 3 V forward voltage and 330 mA forward current, is adopted in ref. . By proper regulating a 48-V output voltage, a string of 16 LEDs can be formed with an output power of 16 W/string. The same power level may be obtained by connecting in series 5 LEDs with 3 V forward voltage and 1 A forward current, see , requiring a regulated voltage of 15 V. The LED voltage regulator shall be interfaced to the digital vehicle network (through LIN or CAN), to exchange status/diagnostic flags and commands with the main vehicle control unit (the same of Fig. 1) for intelligent lighting management .
Management of large input voltage range from 2.5 to 60 V (with nominal inputs at 12, 24, or 48 V)
Step-up and step-down conversion capability
Programmable output voltage, which can be regulated from 1 to 48 V
Advanced techniques such as hysteretic control for low-power consumption and frequency dithering for reduced electromagnetic interference emission
Integrated diagnostic capability and macrocell interfacing through a digital bus
Hereafter, Sections 2 and 3 present the architecture of the DC/DC converter macrocell architecture, and the circuital implementation of its sub-blocks focusing on innovative features vs. the state of the art. Section 4 presents the implementation in CMOS technology, the experimental setup, and some of the performed measurements, and a comparison to the state of the art. Conclusions are drawn in Section 5.
Designing integrated DC/DC converters operating in automotive environment is particularly challenging. Beside typical requirements of switching converters, like high power efficiency and good line/load regulations, also harsh specifications have to meet such as extended ambient operating temperature (from −40 °C to +150 °C), ESD protection up to 4 kV, reduced interference vs. other electronic devices, and wide input voltage range under or over the nominal battery voltage (e.g., from few volts in case of cranking up to max. 60 V in case of 48 V battery systems [1, 2]). The flexibility of the design is also a key issue since the same IC architecture should address different voltage supply specifications and converter topology: with galvanic isolation or not, step-up or step-down. The architecture we present has been integrated in a 0.35 μm CMOS technology from AMS AG, which allows for both low-voltage devices and high-voltage lateral diffused MOS transistors. The latter have been sized in this design to sustain a maximum voltage of 70 V. The key features of the smart DC/DC converter vs. state of the art [1, 7–9] are the digital programmability of the output voltage, the slope control of the MOS driver, the dithering of the frequency used in the PWM-like control loop, and the asynchronous hysteretic control which is activated when the load current is low to minimize the power consumption. The above features allow to increase the flexibility of the DC/DC converter and to reduce the interference emission and the power dissipation.
The proposed converter can be configured to work both in step-up and step-down mode, and in case of problems, it can automatically switch from one mode to another (e.g. automatic switch from step-down to step-up mode in case of battery cranking). With respect to other works in literature [10–13], where smart DC/DC converter functionalities are verified by simulations, this work implements all the described features in a fabricated silicon prototype that was subject to a full experimental characterization.
The integrated power FET and power diodes are enough to sustain current levels of hundreds of milliamps (e.g., in case of automotive LED lighting applications). As example, in this work, the implemented prototype, experimentally characterized in Section 4, can sustain up to 0.9 A. In case of an embedded mechatronic system requiring multiple regulated outputs, with independent regulations to avoid single-point of failure according to automotive standards , an array of the same DC/DC converter hardware macrocell can be realized by proper scaling the integrated power FET area of each channel according to the maximum current to sustain.
Instead, in case of load current levels higher than 1 A (e.g., the rotor excitation current of an automotive starter/alternator amounts to several tens or few hundreds of amperes ), it is more convenient adding external power FET and power diode. In such case, the integrated converter acts as driver for the off-chip power FET. External components have to be used also for capacitors and inductors (or transformers, depending if a galvanic isolation between the 48 V DC bus and the low voltage part is required).
As sketched in Fig. 3, the core of the DC/DC converter circuit can be divided into five main blocks, further detailed in Section 3: power management unit (PMU); DC/DC controller; FET gate driver; diagnostic block; and digitally programmable voltage divider. To be noted that Fig. 3 shows a configuration using an NMOS as power FET device, although the same DC/DC controller can produce outputs for a PMOS power FET with relevant FET gate driver (to be used when the integrated voltage regulator is configured as step-down without a transformer for galvanic isolation). For digital interconnection in Fig. 3, LIN is preferred vs. other automotive wired bus, like CAN or Flexray, since it allows for a maximum sustained bandwidth of 20 kbps, enough for the target application of this work, at reduced complexity and cost. LIN is a de facto standard in vehicle engineering for local interconnections .
3.1 On-chip PMU
The on-chip power management unit includes a low-drop out (LDO) regulator, a bandgap-stabilized voltage reference, and an integrated temperature sensor. The LDO regulator generates the internal supply voltage for the internal digital and analog blocks, including the gate drivers for P-channel and N-channel on-chip power FETs.
The temperature sensor monitors the junction temperature of the IC and triggers an interrupt to the diagnostic block every time an over-temperature condition occurs by turning off the converter, according to the safety strategy of the chip.
3.2 DC/DC controller
to reach high performance in terms of efficiency, line regulation, and load regulation
to reduce the power consumption when the load sinks a very low current
Current mode control with two nested loops (current and voltage feedbacks) in normal conditions for better regulated performances
Hysteretic control in case of low load current for low-power operation
During the regular operation of the converter, to achieve good performance in terms of step response and in terms of line and load regulations, the control acts like a current-mode control [7, 8], with a switching frequency that can be configured up to 888 kHz. This current-mode control includes two nested loops, as shown in Fig. 5: the outer voltage loop (red) and the inner current control loop (green). The nominal frequency of the loop is programmable at 444 or 888 kHz. As further discussed in Section 3.6, to spread the electromagnetic interference caused by a pure synchronous converter, a dithering technique of the switching frequency is applied. The nominal output voltage is set through the digitally programmable resistive divider (PRD block of orange color in Fig. 5) integrated on-chip in the DC/DC converter macrocell. The divider generates two different voltage thresholds for every programmable value of the output voltage. The first threshold is the FB_THR and it is used for the regulation loop. The second threshold, the OS_THR, is used to clamp the output voltage reducing the overshoot of the output voltage during the startup of the system or during transient responses to variations of the input voltage or load current. Finally, the control generates a PWM signal driving the gate of the power FET. A proportional and integral (P.I. in Fig. 5) control function is applied within the voltage control loop to achieve the duty cycle modulation that regulates the output voltage to the nominal value. The coefficients of the P.I. can be configured to perform a flexible design, allowing to have a good trade-off between the regulation performance and the stability margin of the system in different conditions of the programmable output voltage.
The step responses of systems controlled through a P.I. function are often affected by overshoot. Even if the overshoot can be minimized in typical conditions properly configuring the P.I. coefficients, the process-voltage-temperature (PVT) spread can cause a higher overshoot in other operating conditions. As the target of the DC/DC converter is to work in the harsh automotive environment, it has to operate properly in a wide ambient temperature range. To solve this issue, a dedicated structure was added vs. the state of the art to the regulation loop to keep the overshoot under control. In Fig. 5, the overshoot is limited by the OS_THR produced by the digitally programmable divider. When the output voltage exceeds this threshold, the power FET is switched off and the overshoot is limited. When the regulated voltage begins to converge to the nominal value, the PWM signal is applied to the gate of the power FET again, and the regular operation is restored.
The configurations in Figs. 7 and 8 are representative of automotive LED lighting applications with a string of 6 LEDs (each with 3 V forward voltage) when the input voltage falls down to 6 V (cranking) or grows to 25 V, e.g., due to overvoltage. To be noted that the waveforms in Figs. 6, 7, and 8 have been experimentally measured using the fabricated IC prototype and the measuring test bed proposed in Section 4.
The low power hysteretic control was implemented to fulfill the challenging automotive requirements on power saving. This control by-passes the regular synchronous control, when the load current is low (e.g., during standby states or when the load is working with reduced performance). In this condition, it does not required a very accurate supply, and the power consumption is mainly low due to continuous charging/discharging the gate capacitance of the power FET while the conductive power losses are negligible (the load current is low). Since the hysteretic control is an asynchronous control, it avoids unnecessary switching activity and the converter can save power. Indeed, when the converter is in low power mode, the power FET is turned on only when the output voltage falls down the nominal output voltage value. Once the power FET is turned on, the converter keeps sourcing energy to the output until the output voltage reaches a value slightly greater than the nominal one. After that the switch is kept off until the load current has slowly discharged, the output capacitor behind the target value and the cycle starts again. Since in this condition, the current sunk from the DC/DC’s output port by the load is very low, the voltage on the output capacitor will take a long time to discharge, and hence, the hysteretic control allows to minimize the switching activity. In low power mode, the total current consumption of the IC is reduced at about 300 μA, saving about the 80 % of the current consumption vs. the normal mode, which implements the nested control loops of Fig. 5.
3.3 Slope controlling of the power FET gate driver
3.4 Digitally programmable output voltage
Most of state-of-the-art DC/DC converters [7–9] need an external resistive divider or a more complicated circuit to set the output voltage value. In most cases, once the output voltage is set, it cannot be changed anymore. In our design, instead, a digitally programmable resistive divider is integrated on-chip, see PRD block in Fig. 5. Using an integrated digitally programmable divider to generate the feedback signal for the regulation loop of the converter saves costs and area on the PCB and allows changing the output voltage level in a range between 1 and 48 V at any time.
3.5 Diagnostic block
Safety has a primary role in the design of automotive ICs. These devices, in fact, must be able to prevent harms to the outer systems if a fault condition occurs . In our design, a dedicated diagnostic block was implemented to detect and manage the following failures: (i) overcurrent into the primary side; (ii) overtemperature; (iii) undervoltage on the output pin; and (iv) overvoltage on the output pin.
It is very important to monitor the current flowing into the primary side of the transformer because if it exceeds the maximum allowed value (dependent on the external parts used), the external switch may be damaged and the magnetic element’s core may saturate, irreversibly compromising the functionality of the whole system. When an overcurrent condition occurs, the power FET is then immediately switched off. An integrated temperature sensor generates a voltage proportional to the temperature of the die. The system manages the overtemperature by switching the converter off as soon as the output voltage of the sensor exceeds a threshold corresponding to the maximum operating temperature. Undervoltage and overvoltage conditions on the output pin are detected by comparing the reference voltage from the bandgap to two dedicated additional partitions of the output voltage. If such a condition occurs, the DC/DC is switched off.
3.6 Dithering of the switching frequency
4.1 IC characterization
IC rating for a 36 W output power
Absolute junction temp
Absolute input voltage
Comparison vs. state of the art, operating conditions
Wide temp. range °C
−40 to 150
−40 to 125
−40 to 150
Input voltage, V
2.5 to 60
8 to 20
7.5 to 40
7 to 60
Output voltage, V
1 to 48
1 to 4.5
12 to 20
0.5 to 36
1.65 to 48
Digital prog. out
Low power mode
High stability margins of the system are confirmed by the smoothness of the start-up transient and of the step responses. The dynamic transient performance of the presented DC/DC converter was investigated by evaluating the line and load regulation as shown in Fig. 12. Note that if a step of 100 mA occurs (blue waveform), the output voltage (yellow waveform) does not change. The oscilloscope snapshot in Fig. 13 shows the achievement of the dynamic updating of the output voltage by setting the digitally programmable resistive divider. The greater switching activity during the transient vs. the steady state is due to the greater power transferred to the output capacitor. The behavior of the system against temperature was evaluated repeating the characterization in the wide range of ambient operating temperature, typical of the automotive applications from −40 to 150 °C using the Thermostream TP04300A system.
Figure 14 shows the current consumption in low power mode vs. temperature (when hysteretic control is activated). To be noted that absolute ratings in Table 1 for temperature (−40 to 180 °C) and input voltage (−0.3 to 70 V) are larger than the operating ratings in Table 2, since the IC has extended working ranges where the correct functionality is not guaranteed but it is protected by any damages.
After the evaluation, the qualification phase of the device took place. This activity aimed to test the robustness, the reliability, and the compliance of the designed system with requirements typical of harsh automotive environments. The system was verified to work inside the safe operating area (SOA) with lifetime acceleration factor close to 1 to maximize the mean time to failure of the device. Other typical requirements that an IC for automotive applications must meet are about ESD and latch-up. During latch-up tests, hundreds of milliamps of current are sunk by every pin of the device. This analysis guarantees that no bipolar parasitic structures will turn on during the operating life of the device. This test is very important because if such a fault occurs the device can be irreparably damaged. Electrostatic discharge tests, instead, aim to reproduce ESD events stressing the device with the application of a current pulse, obtained by discharging a pre-charged capacitor through a series resistor, on every pin of the integrated circuit. Different ESD tests can be performed. Different ESD models can also be used to guarantee the robustness of the circuit to different possible ESD events. In this case, we focused on the human body model (HBM). It aims to simulate ESD events due to the interaction of the device with the human body. A 100 pF capacitor (pre-charged at thousands of Volts) is discharged on a pin through a 1.5 kΩ series resistor. The device is tested before and after the ESD stress. By comparing the results, it was verified that no shifts of the parameters of the converter occurred during the stress. The DC/DC converter IC meets 4 kV ESD requirements. EMC is another hot topic in automotive ICs validation . Special tests were performed at vehicle-level in an anechoic chamber, where a car equipped with our IC must keep working when exposed to electrical fields up to 700 V/m. The endurance to high temperature and to thermal stress was checked out by (high-temperature operating life (HTOL) qualification. The achieved performance makes the IC suitable not only for automotive, but also for applications in other transport applications such as motorcycles .
4.2 Comparison to the state of the art
DC/DC converters proposed in literature for automotive applications still miss of flexibility. Differently from them, the DC/DC converter proposed in this paper integrates in the same smart architecture innovative features such as step-up/step-down configuration, the slope controlled gate driver, and the frequency dithering for reduced electromagnetic interference, the digital programmability of the output voltage, a low-power hysteretic control for low-power consumption mode, and a programmable P.I. function with nested control loops in normal mode. A comparison between this work and other recent works proposed in literature is shown in Table 2. It is important to point out that Ref.  even if it is included in the step-up/step-down DC/DC converters category, it cannot step up the output voltage over two times the input voltage. Ref.  allows to dynamically changing the output voltage value by adjusting an analog voltage on a dedicated pin of the IC. This method is very restrictive for the following reasons: (i) a dedicated additional pin and a specific off-chip circuitry on the PCB are required thus increasing cost; and (ii) setting the output voltage by adjusting an analog voltage is not aligned with the current trend of automotive ECUs to make more and more use of digital interfaces and networking. Instead, the digital programmability of the output voltage also allows sharing resources such as the digital communication bus. Ref.  presents a low power mode, but it is not considered because in this condition, the FET is switched off and the DC/DC converter does not work, while in our design, in low power mode, the DC/DC converter keeps working using an asynchronous hysteretic control. Ref.  proposes an inductorless DC/DC converter which, compared to the proposed design, has the following drawbacks: limited output programmability since only the conversion ratio (Vout/Vin) can be configured in a limited set of integer factors; missing dithering and low power modes; reduced output current capability to few hundreds of milliamps. Moreover, the works in [7–9] miss harsh environment specifications such as an extended operating temperature range, from −40 to 150 °C with our design, and extended operating input voltage range from few volts (in case of battery cranking) to maximum 60 V for emerging 48 V DC bus electric/hybrid vehicles.
Dithering of switching frequency
Nested control loops with both current and voltage feedbacks
Asynchronous hysteretic control for low power mode
Slope controlling of the power FET gate driver
Diagnostic block against out-of-range current or voltage or temperature conditions
The converter macrocell can be connected to the in-vehicle network through LIN bus, exchanging with the main vehicle control unit status/diagnostic flags and commands. Indeed, the proposed design supports digital configurability of the voltage, through a programmable divider, of the coefficients of the PI controller inside the voltage control loop. When compared to the state of the art, the proposed design stands for its capability of integrating in the same device all smart converter features listed above and facing harsh automotive requirements [3, 23, 24]. Experimental measurements prove that the IC can sustain automotive applications with ESD protection of 4 kV, operating temperature range from −40 to 150 °C, and up to 180 °C absolute value (the IC is not working properly but is not subject to damage), absolute voltage rating from −0.3 to 70 V. In operating mode, load current of 0.9 A can be safely managed, whereas in low power mode, the current consumption is reduced to about 300 μA. The achieved results prove that DC/DC converters can be effectively integrated in embedded systems for mechatronic applications, facing harsh automotive conditions, and can be configured to work both in step-up or step-down modes.
This work was partially supported by the ATHENIS 3D EU project.
Prof. Sergio Saponara, IEEE Senior Member, got M.Sc. and PhD degrees in Electronic Engineering from Pisa University. In 2002, he was a Marie Curie Research fellow at IMEC, Leuven, Belgium. He is enrolled as Associate Professor at Pisa University teaching course of electronic systems for automotive, industrial automation and measurements, embedded signal processing, wireless IoT. He has got the Italian National Scientific Habilitation to the role of Full Professor of Electronics. He is a member of two IEEE standardization activities, of the Technical committees TC-7 and TC-19 of the IEEE IM Society, and he served in the organization of several IEEE and SPIE Conferences and as guest editor of special issues in several ISI journals. He is an associate editor of four journals among them Journal of Real-Time Image Processing (Springer), Electronics Letters (IET). He co-authored more than 250 scientific publications and 15 patents. He is an associate member of the Italian National Institutes for Nuclear Physics (INFN) and Inter-University Consortium for Telecommunications (CNIT).
Prof. Luca Fanucci, IEEE Senior Member, got M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in electronic engineering from Pisa University in 1992 and 1996, respectively. From 1992 to 1996, he was with the European Space Research and Technology Centre, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands, as a research fellow. From 1996 to 2004, he was a senior researcher with the Italian National Research Council, Pisa. He is a full professor of microelectronic systems at the University of Pisa. He is the co-author of more than 300 journal and conference papers and co-author of more than 30 patents. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Microprocessors and Microsystems Journal and Technology and Disability Journal. Dr. Fanucci served in several technical program committees of international conferences. He was the Program Chair of Euromicro DSD 2008 and IEEE DATE 2016 conferences.
Dr. Riccardo Serventi received the M.Sc. degree in electronic engineering from the University of Pisa in 1999. He is the design group leader of the Automotive Business Unit of Austriamicrosystems AG, Navacchio, Italy. He co-authored several technical papers, two patents, and ten IEEE scientific publications. His current interests include high-voltage mixed-signal IC design for automotive.
Dr. Edoardo Biagi received the M.Sc. degree in electronic engineering and the Ph.D. degree in Information Engineering from the University of Pisa, Pisa, Italy. He collaborated with the Automotive Business Unit of Austriamicrosystems AG. He co-authored several technical papers and scientific publications. Currently, he is a consultant for the project ATHENIS3D on innovative embedded system design for automotive.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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