Speedy FlexRay advances slowly

  • 01-Aug-2008 03:30 EDT

Agilent’s Infiniium scope helps engineers check signal integrity on FlexRay networks.

FlexRay is inching forward, with more vehicles moving into production and a growing infrastructure. However, the high-speed network is still on a very slow ramp up due in part to its complexity.

At Convergence, an Audi paper will detail the development of a real-time FlexRay network that will debut in the next-generation A8, which will be the first Volkswagen Group car to use FlexRay. Working with TTTech Automotive GmbH, engineers implemented the deterministic time-triggered network to get its 10-Mbits/s bandwidth.

BMW for the first automaker to implement the FlexRay bus, doing so last year on its X5.

The infrastructure for FlexRay is also expanding. Instrument suppliers are ramping up with tools that help designers build networks.

“We’ve just introduced a scope and some FlexRay-related application software that offers a lot of analysis for signal integrity,” said Johnnie Hancock, Product Manager at Agilent Technologies. “FlexRay runs at 10 Mbits/s, 20 times faster than CAN, so signal integrity becomes a big issue.”

He noted that interest in FlexRay has increased significantly in the past year, though that hasn’t yet translated into substantial market growth. “At trade shows, FlexRay is what people are interested in. The market for FlexRay instrumentation is ramping up, but it’s still slow,” Hancock said.

That slow uptake is underscored by design projects in active safety, a demanding application that could benefit from determinism and high speed. But most active safety systems now in the pipeline use dedicated CAN buses.

“FlexRay is exciting, getting up to 10 Mbits/s. But at this point, we don’t need that bandwidth,” said Michael Thoeny, Chief Engineer for Active Safety at Delphi Corp.

Observers note that FlexRay is complex to integrate, so most initial applications of the architecture are done in noncritical areas. For example, BMW employed it for body-control functions that will not stop the vehicle if there is a failure.

The Audi/TTTech Convergence paper notes that FlexRay designs have “new requirements for cabling and wire harness, chipsets on ECUs, embedded software, and tools.” Costs are higher since the technology is new and volumes are low.

However, observers note that companies that go through this challenge will create a base that helps them trim the number of vehicle networks while adding more functionality. “Once you’ve done it, you end up with something that will be very robust,” said Paul Hansen, Editor of The Hansen Report.

That is prompting a lot of interest, at least in the long term. Hansen polled a number of executives during a panel session at the SAE World Congress in April, asking if they would use FlexRay on at least 200,000 vehicles per year within five to seven years. ChryslerGeneral Motors, Honda, Hyundai, and Nissan all predicted they would hit that level.

Though Hansen predicts that FlexRay will “definitely see widespread application” over time, he noted that the economic downturn may impact that schedule. “Given the financial situation, U.S. automakers may hold back on new technologies,” he said.

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