Hansen and OEMs discuss electronics trends and challenges at SAE Convergence

  • 15-Oct-2012 04:14 EDT
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Paul Hansen.

To know what’s going on in the global automotive electronics industry—the technologies, the hot companies, and the people behind them—requires reading ‘the bible.’ That would be The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics, published on a subscription-only basis by founder and editor Paul Hansen of Hansen and Associates.

It’s no coincidence that Hansen has moderated the “Carmakers Speak” panel at SAE Convergence for many years, and for 2012 he has again assembled a top-notch group of experts for a frank discussion on the industry’s progress and challenges. The six heavyweights are Alan Amici, Head of Electrical and Electronics for Fiat Group Automotive; Micky Bly, General Motors’ Executive Director, Group Global Functional Leader of Vehicle Engineering’s Electrical Systems, Infotainment and Electrification; Dr. Ricky Hudi, Chief Executive Engineer Electrics/Electronics at Audi; Graydon Reitz, Ford’s Global Director, Electrical and Electronic Systems Engineering; Wayne Powell, General Manager of Electrical Systems at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor; and John Schnoes, Director Electrical & Electronics at the Nissan Technical Center North America.

AEI Senior Editor Lindsay Brooke spoke with Hansen prior to Convergence in early October about his focus for the panel.

Q: What trends in automotive electronics interest you the most for the Convergence discussion?

There is just so much innovation in the works, and this industry is thriving. We’re on the cusp of so much change. Just looking at connectivity, there is so much happening there. Not just connectivity to the smart phone, which is still very problematic. Carmakers are having a heck of a hard time making their systems work seamlessly as we get more and more smart phones in the market.

We’ve got 'cloud computing' coming along. We’ve got connectivity to the Internet, and once you connect your vehicle to it you have potential to connect to everything in the world. We’ve got big data we’re looking at, and that’s just connectivity.

Q: Do you see any disruptive factors approaching the industry?

We have at least two “elephants in the room”—Apple and Google. Both companies are really casting a lot of influence on our entire industry. And I think it’s a positive influence.

Apple already has a significant effect on the industry by showing what the human-machine interface ought to be. If all carmakers could make a Ford Sync-like package and have it be as effective and easy to operate and learn as Apple makes phones, it would be a wonderful breakthrough.

There’s also Apple’s Siri, which made everybody in automotive electronics say, ‘We need to get better at this speech-recognition issue.’ And Apple also is offering vehicle navigation.

Q: The other elephant in the room is Google.

Right, Google with its Linux-based Android. Linux and open-sourced software are really beginning to take off in our industry. We have Google’s insight in the industry around autonomous vehicles. All the major carmakers are saying ‘We’ve had autonomous vehicles on the road long before Google ever started getting acclaim for it,’ and that’s true. But Google is quite aggressive about vehicle autonomy, and that’s created a buzz in our industry around the prospects for vehicles that really don’t need to be driven.

Q: So how do automakers step up to face these and other challenges?

One of the big questions is, how do you maintain the retail price of the infotainment system for the premium, which in the case of the most expensive German vehicles can be 2000 euros per car, for a Mercedes Command system. How do you maintain that edge for what Google is able to provide for free? I think that is a big question on everybody’s mind. The message to the industry here is, what’s happening in the car better be a whole lot better than what can happen on my smart phone.

Q: That’s a big challenge for the auto guys, given how quick and nimble the consumer electronics industry works.

It is, but the car has some big advantages. A car offers much larger displays, in the center of the IP and in the cluster. It’s got the potential to use head-up displays. It should be able to supply a better speech-recognition interface than the iPhone 5 can supply, for example. And the car also has access to the vehicle control systems that a smart-phone provider won’t necessarily get access to unless they are ‘blessed’ by the carmaker.

I think increasingly the infotainment industry will think to add value beyond information and beyond entertainment, and begin to move into safety. It will happen.

Q: What other technology issues are on your mind?

The whole matter of complexity came about as each of the communication networks aboard the vehicle began to send messages to each other through gateways. Things got very complex. Now what happens, when the vehicle as a node is able to connect through servers in the cloud and from there, connect to everything else on the internet. I think this is really going to ‘up’ the issue of complexity and make us think a lot more about security.

Q: Security of data in in-car systems?

Yes, it was a big topic two years ago when Toyota was struggling with its unintended acceleration issues. It’s very much on people’s minds. And we’re starting to see carmakers look at some new software technologies in the works. There’s software virtualization where you can put more than one operating system on a single microprocessor and use what’s called a hypervisor to maintain separation between each of the operating systems. I have a feeling virtualization is going to come along pretty quickly in the auto industry.

Q: That sounds daunting, in terms of final integration.

Well, virtualization’s been around in the server community for at least 10 years. There probably isn’t a server operating in the cloud anywhere that doesn’t use virtualization. They use it to save energy. It’s a way to get more separation that exists today. And this will start in infotainment and will probably gravitate to other parts of the vehicle.

Q: How about electrical systems’ architectural complexity?

Limiting the number of ECUs on the vehicle is something everybody is thinking about. We’ve seen ECU consolidation already around body control. As we use some of these architectures that have been well proven in computer science, off the vehicle, and apply these to the vehicle—like Ethernet, AUTOSAR, and virtualization—I think carmakers finally will be able to come up with electrical architectures that reduce complexity by integrating more ECUs into one.

Q: The experts on your panel are thinking how these trends will affect their companies’ electrical engineering and design resources.

Right. My first question to the panel will be, “What keeps you awake at night…and how can suppliers help with that?”

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