Vexing software, hardware challenges are prompting changes

  • 13-May-2008 12:40 EDT
"The best solutions come when companies don't work sequentially but in cooperation," said Infineon President Wolfgang Ziebart. "There are strong benefits to cross-boundary cooperation."

The expansion of electronics and software continues almost unabated, bringing both benefits and challenges for automakers and their suppliers. As engineers develop new safety, infotainment, and powertrain systems, they are looking at a variety of techniques to manage hardware and software development.

One key area of concern is that the growing number of increasingly powerful microcontrollers is driving the demand for software up exponentially. As chips handle more chores, the size of the programs that define most features and functions is expanding rapidly.

“We’ve seen explosive growth in software,” said Toyohei Nakajima, Senior Chief Engineer at Honda R&D Co. Ltd. “Over the last 30 years, software volume has risen by 50 times per year. Producing software is one of our major challenges.”

On the hardware side, chipmakers continue to supply more silicon per vehicle. Taking a different view from the usual “80 microprocessors on a car” description of growth for electronics, one of the SAE World Congress panelists discussing Electronics: Expectations and Opportunities detailed the output in semiconductor manufacturing terms.

“The average silicon content of a typical car now consumes about 30% of an 8-in silicon wafer. The silicon content of a hybrid vehicle takes a full 8-in wafer,” said Wolfgang Ziebart, President of Infineon Technologies AG.

For hybrids, that means that expenditures on metal and mechanics are matched by those for chips and programs. “Roughly 50% of the cost of a hybrid vehicle is in hardware and software,” Honda’s Nakajima said.

Much of the expansion in software comes in interiors, where the link to consumer electronics is prompting huge changes. One challenge is to let vehicles link with a range of consumer electronics such as MP3 players without raising concerns that these throwaway technologies will cause problems in the vehicle.

“We’ve got an enhanced multimedia platform that’s based on Microsoft’s operating system. We separate the consumer portion from the automotive portion with a firewall,” said Helmut Matschi, head of the Interior Division of Continental Corp. Another technique is to design systems that can be upgraded more easily, letting vehicles accommodate consumer technologies as they evolve throughout the longer life cycles of cars.

“Tomorrow, automotive systems will be analogous to the PC; hardware is a commodity and the focus will be on expansion,” said William Mattingly, Vice President of Electrical/Electronics Engineering at Chrysler LLC.

He also noted that telematics may play a role in bringing onboard software under control. “As the vehicle becomes more connected, not all the software necessarily needs to be embedded. Vehicles can go on line for software,” Mattingly said.

The growth in software is creating a shortage of engineers who can write the highly reliable code needed for vehicles. A growing number of automakers are changing their design methodology, using modeling software from the start of their designs.

“By introducing model-based design into our cars, we’ve reduced the burden of software debugging. Up to a 30% reduction in time and resources can be realized with model-based design,” Nakajima said.

Yet another tool borrowed from the PC world is standardization. Most panelists agreed that the AUTOSAR standard, which provides a software interface for hardware, will see more usage over the next few years.

“AUTOSAR is a very, very good thing at all levels of the value chain. We now have an interface on the hardware instruction layer so we can focus not on the hardware instructions but one level above,” Ziebart said.

Panelists also agreed that automakers and suppliers need to work even more closely together. As larger chips handle a growing number of functions, designers at automakers, Tier 1, and semiconductor suppliers will have to work closely so that designs are streamlined yet still provide powerful functions.

“The best solutions come when companies don’t work sequentially but in cooperation. There are strong benefits to cross-boundary cooperation,” Ziebart said.

The idea that, in the foreseeable future, one large chip could perform many of the functions of a car prompted one audience member to ask whether the Tier 1 suppliers might be eliminated as chipmakers and automakers work more closely together. That isn’t likely, since there are many complexities involved throughout the design phase.

“Systems engineering is definitely an area where Tier 1 suppliers can provide value. Certification is not an easy thing to do,” said Jason Forcier, Regional President of Robert Bosch Corp.’s Electronic Division.

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