As Electronics Expand, So Do The Challenges Facing Automotive DesignersAs Electronics Expand, So Do The Challenges Facing Automotive Designers

Next time you get in your car, take a moment and look around -- quite a collection of electronic content isn't there? Yes, there is. In fact, most projections indicate that the use of electronics in automobiles is increasing at such a rapid rate that by the end of the decade more than 40 percent of an automobile's cost will be in electronics. That's an amazing number that was virtually impossible to imagine 10 to 15 years ago, but is now very much a reality.

What you see electronically from your view in the driver's seat is only the tip of the iceberg. With advanced features in the automobile such as telematics, DVD/video, satellite radio, GPS navigation, automatic climate control, electronic stability control, power doors, seats, mirrors and windows … the fact is there is an increasing amount of electronic sophistication in the automobile. And these are just the systems you can see.

Beneath the surface of your vehicle, changes have occurred over the past 10 years equally as dramatic as those in the passenger compartment. Just about every system in which an actuator drove the mechanical or hydraulic system has been replaced by an electronic sensor and switch augmenting the mechanical and hydraulic systems. Many of these critical systems and electronic control units (ECUs) manage the brakes, airbags and steering.

The "electronification" of the automobile is being driven by today's consumers and their demands for increased reliability, not to mention the more basic desire for more sensory sizzle. Consequently, automakers are scrambling to recruit talent and retool an industry that, until recently, mechanical engineers and design software had dominated. A new day is dawning in the automotive world, and automakers and their suppliers need a savvy electronics staff and supplier-support structure that can deal with electronic-design issues that are unique to the automotive arena.

The major challenge facing automotive electronics designers is the high degree of connectivity required within the vehicle. In just the past decade, the magnitude and complexity of the interconnection of automotive electronics has increased dramatically. Depending on the vehicle, there can be 3 to 15 ECUs (over 50 in some high-end vehicles) with hundreds of embedded software modules; and each of these applications must inter-communicate. Adding to the complexity is that each ECU presents its own challenge, given that the software, middleware and application software is written by different companies, yet must be integrated together within the overall framework of the vehicle.

The pressure falls squarely upon the tier-one suppliers, because today's auto manufacturers don't design the electrical systems; it's the responsibility of the many tier-one suppliers to design the electronic subsystems found within our vehicles. Tier-one vendors, in turn, rely on tier-two vendors, essentially semiconductor and pc-board-design vendors, to supply and even custom-design components for each ECU.

Automakers design automobiles four years in advance of their commercial release, so auto manufacturers today are working on 2012 cars, vans, SUVs and trucks that they will release in mid-2011. They take responsibility to conceive an approximation of the electronics inventory, such as a list of ECUs and their behavioral specifications. This can even include data about the ECU's networks that includes low- and high-speed controller-area networks and local-interconnect networks. The manufacturers almost never specify the actual electronic components; they rely on their suppliers to delve into that detail.

This is just the start of the process. The manufacturer shops the rough specifications to the tier-one suppliers for bid, narrows the field down to perhaps three finalists for each ECU and demands that each of the finalists deliver a prototype within six months. Once the prototype meets the functionality requirements, the supplier designs an actual scale model ECU. When the manufacturer begins testing, it's not uncommon for the ECU's specifications to change, further adding time, money and complexity to the design phase.

And therein is the crux of the challenge that automotive companies face -- how to shorten the traditional automotive design phase in conjunction with the ever-changing demands of today's electronics-eager consumers. Ask yourself this question, "How many people do you know that have a four-year old cell phone?" With the infotainment options available to consumers both outside and inside their vehicles, automotive manufacturers are under pressure to stay current with the demands of these consumers, many of whom are updating their entertainment gadgets every year.

Manufacturers and suppliers are up to meeting the challenges. Real-time design and testing, developing streamlined communications across each design tier, more standardized products and application-specific standard products -- these are just a few of the solutions that are being implemented to deliver cutting-edge electronics to an ever-demanding automotive customer in today's, and tomorrow's, cars and trucks.
by Mike Trudel
References and Bibliography
Mike Trudel, Freelance Writer. Delphi Corporation is poised to apply its expertise and know-how to provide vehicle manufacturers and consumers with in-vehicle entertainment and connectivity. To learn more about Delphi Corporation, please visit
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