Software-defined, connected, and self-driving cars are transforming the automotive industry, and our driving experience. But for many car manufacturers, building an efficient, flexible software architecture is still an afterthought. Integrating independent software elements into a comprehensive platform is not an easy task, and here’s why:
Originally, cars were “all-mechanical”, but today, they are a maze of sensors, wires, and Electronic Control Units (ECUs). These embedded systems are the brains of the car, controlling multiple electrical sub systems: everything from engine control, transmission, and braking, to AC, lighting control, air bags, and more.
In modern vehicles, ECUs not only have to be able to brake, slow down, or detect external threats, they also must connect those functions and compute large, complex decisions. Some high-end and electric cars today have as many as 100 ECUs!
And in this electrical maze, the hard- and software architecture is the framework that keeps it all working.
Is Automotive ready to take up the software challenge?
But building an efficient and flexible infrastructure that ensures all components can communicate with each other is extraordinarily complex — and it’s a new challenge for the Automotive sector.
In Aerospace for example, software has played a fundamental role for much longer. Dedicated aerospace software engineers can develop and test flight software, flight simulations, algorithms, and more. But in Automotive, designing software is still often in the hands of mechanical engineers, who — rather than considering the entire lifecycle of the software — map it onto their mechanical lifecycle. Some car manufacturers have begun to develop their own software and systems platform, but their results have been hit or miss. Many have given up because of the specialist knowledge and investments involved.
The trend towards reducing ECUs
To get a glimpse of the challenges, let’s go back to the ECUs. Some of them are inactive most of the time. They’re basically waiting for something to happen so that they can ‘jump in and do their thing.’ But these ECUs still impact resources such as the electronics, processor, the computer itself, the microcontroller, the CPU time, the memory, and more.
By reconsidering the in-car architecture to include fewer ECUs that are then connected to a centralized computer, resources can be shared, reducing power consumption. And because everything is software-driven, you can make changes more easily and quickly, without having to physically rebuild your infrastructure platform.
It’s a great idea, but there are still hurdles to overcome. To start with, software typically comes from diverse sources, and the pieces don’t always fit together. You also have to safeguard both cybersecurity and functional safety, by making sure that components don’t block each other and cause problems. This means creating interfaces that can easily be adapted to various platforms.
The industry appears to be heading to an infrastructure with a few, larger computers or ‘zone controllers’ covering many functionalities, combined with smart components like sensors and actuators throughout the car. These smart components will contain small microcontrollers, which will need to be close to the actuator or sensor because of electrical constraints. All these different aspects must be considered at the early stage: you can’t just figure them out “at the end”.
How Kendrion supports car manufacturers and infrastructure suppliers
Our primary role as Kendrion is not to build these big controllers but to develop the smart components: sensors and actuators. In some cases, we also build the software for the central ECUs that control our products, for instance our sound systems or BLDC motors. This enables our actuators and sensors to perform their tasks remotely and feedback information via well-defined interfaces.
To serve our OEM and system customers better and faster, we are currently working on two major software development platforms: one for very small components and one for larger components. These will give us a foundation on which to build all our products, and then easily adapt them to specific customer needs. Further ahead, we’re thinking of ‘software only’ solutions, in which the software can be directly integrated in the centralized ECU.
We have a long history of software development. We bring together colleagues with 30 years of software development experience in the Automotive industry, with new talents well-versed in the latest software technologies and insights. Over the past three years, our software development department has grown significantly; we have tripled the number of people in our multinational team!
We also recently introduced a new Global Product Lifecycle Management System that allows us to monitor and control our products through their lifecycle and integrate software from the beginning.
My Head of Software Development role is new, too. I joined Kendrion last year and I am responsible for setting the strategy for Kendrion’s software, identifying where we want to go and how we want to position ourselves in the market. I monitor with my colleagues from Product Management and Business Development the latest trends and customer needs to make sure we can continue to support them on their road to success. Automotive software is an exciting area to be in. I’m delighted to be forming my team, as well as the future of the company.