Tiny computer chip sensor for cars
Computer chips help reduce rollovers. Engineering professor Andrei Shkel and the UCI MicroSystems Laboratory developed the robust, low-cost sensor for automobile safety systems. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Drivers worldwide soon will be able to navigate dangerous road conditions more safely, thanks to sensor technology developed at UC Irvine.

A research team led by Andrei Shkel, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and UCI MicroSystems Laboratory director, has designed a 1.7 millimeter-wide device that helps stabilize automobiles, allowing them to pass safely through hazardous conditions such as sharp turns and slippery roads that could result in a rollover.

The device – a micro-electro-mechanical systems gyroscope – maintains a constant center of gravity and alerts the safety system to correct when it detects the vehicle beginning to spin or roll. The MEMS gyroscope is a significant technological step forward because it can operate under harsh conditions and it also is relatively inexpensive.

Microscopic gyroscopes are helping enable an emerging technology called electronic stability control. The resulting system helps prevent accidents by automatically activating brakes on out-of-control vehicles. The technology can be particularly useful for vehicles with a higher center of gravity, which makes them prone to rolling.

“To be useful for electronic stability control, these sophisticated microscopic sensors have to be fast, reliable and cheap,” Shkel said. “They also must operate with confidence in the harsh automotive environment, which encompasses a daunting combination of factors including temperature, vibration, shock and humidity.”

Electronic stability control is available in luxury vehicles, but sensors made from quartz were too expensive for widespread installation. Innovations in MEMS gyroscope technology make these systems more affordable. Shkel expects the sensors to be widely deployed after about four years of testing. His goal is to have a reliable, sophisticated stability system in every car.

“In the next few years, these systems will be as common as present-day passenger protection airbags, he said. “They will help save millions of lives.

Funding for the UCI project came from Systron Donner Automotive, a manufacturer of advanced automotive safety devices, and a UC Discovery Grant.