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Integrating electronics to create multi-domain controls was touted by Michael Groene of Delphi at the 2016 SAE Congress panel on vehicle electronics. (Terry Costlow)

Next-gen electronic controls: Open source, scalable and integrated

All trends point to rapidly increasing levels of vehicle electronics. That’s forcing engineering managers to explore ways to consolidate hardware and improve software development while they adjust internal staffing and forge tighter alliances with customers and suppliers.

A range of strategic and tactical changes were discussed by panelists during the session “Are Functions and Software Becoming More Important than Hardware in Vehicle Electronics Engineering?” during the 2016 SAE World Congress. They also took a few minutes to answer that question.

“If you look at key performance indicators, software allows more ability to differentiate,” said Stephan Tarnutzer, Vice President of Electronics at FEV.

For the most part, panelists focused more on the growing need to improve hardware and software. Both are growing in importance, increasing from about 25% of vehicle value to roughly 50% in less than three decades.

“The on-board value is shifting,” said Tony Cooprider, Senior Technical Leader for Ford Motor Co. “Twenty-five years ago, 75% of the vehicle value was mechanical, 22% was electronics and there was a sliver of software. Software has grown to 18%, electronics is now about a third and about half is mechanical parts.”

He noted that headlights have gone from a simple relay control for on-off to a glare-free high beam lamp that uses nine electronic modules to change from high to low beams when a vehicle is approaching. Cooprider also mentioned that radio head units typically run about half the lines of code in a vehicle.

That’s prompting development teams to figure out ways to reuse software throughout the vehicle. In infotainment, reuse is being augmented by utilizing open-source software. A growing number of suppliers are using it for low-level aspects of radio head unit design.

“We’re looking at open source to try and control cost and drive out bugs,” Cooprider said.

Moving to multi-domain controllers 

While this trend is gaining steam in infotainment, it’s not likely to move into mission-critical areas like powertrain and advanced driver assistance (ADAS). In these areas, developers typically focus on creating their own high reliability programs so they know exactly what every line of code does.

“Open-source software is being used primarily in infotainment systems,” said Scott Morrison, Advanced Electrical Architecture Manager at General Motors. “We’re trying to limit use cases so it does not spill over into high level security and safety areas.”

Regardless of the operating environment, strategists are looking for ways to simplify both hardware and software. Scalability and integration were two of the panelists’ watchwords. Many predicted that the number of electronic control units per vehicle will level out or decline.

“We need to consolidate what we’ve distributed, we want to reduce the number of controllers in a car,” said Michael Groene, Director of Global Software Engineering at Delphi Automotive. “The benefit will be that we’ll have multi-domain controllers. To bring functionality into one spot reduces complexity, though bringing higher density has thermal challenges.”

As vehicle electronics get more complicated, companies throughout the industry are working on ways to manage production. Both software and hardware are now being designed to simplify development and deployment as well as increase speed.

“Scalable software platforms reduce complexity,” Groene said. “Communications within the chip are faster than going over signal lines.”

Rethinking supplier relations 

It isn’t just the growing reliance in on-board electronics that’s changing design strategies. Connectivity makes it possible to do some tasks in the cloud, adding another level of complexity. That’s prompting many companies to rethink the way they work with suppliers.

“There’s a trend to move from on-board processing to off-board processing,” Cooprider said. “That has implications for software, which now enables 90% of new features. It will change collaboration and suppliers’ ownership will also change."

The challenges of autonomous driving and cyber security intensify the difficulties that come with automotive’s reliability and safety requirements. That’s prompting a focus on expanding global teams to leverage many different knowledge bases.

“Tier 1s, OEMs and Tier 2s all need to come together to overcome complexity,” Groene said. “As we go to autonomy and add layers of security, we’ll need to simulate more and automate our processes more. Nobody sits in one spot, everything is distributed in worldwide organizations. We have to bring them together.”

OEMs are also looking for ways to tighten the links with their partners. Each of these arrangements will have to be considered individually based on the ways that these suppliers address intellectual property ownership, among other topics.

“How we want to insert our IP will impact how we choose our partners,” GM's Morrison said. “Different Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers will insert themselves in different places.”

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