Reliability, complexity are leading challenges for carmakers

  • 01-Nov-2010 04:20 EDT
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Chip usage in electric vehicles will be dramatically different than in today’s designs, said GM’s Micky Bly.


Maintaining reliability even as system designs grow in complexity is one of the key challenges facing automakers. The impact of electrification and a greater reliance on software are also major changes.

Six engineering managers from leading automotive OEMs addressed these issues in a wide-ranging "Carmakers Speak" panel at Convergence. Moderator Paul Hansen of The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics set the stage for an edgy discussion by tweaking Toyota for not participating in the panel. To begin a discussion on reliability, he detailed their recent recalls and other troubles.

Panelists responded by noting that the growing number of chips calls for more reliable components. Now that semiconductor providers are into low single digits of the ppm (parts per million) level, automakers are asking for a huge improvement to parts per billion (ppb).

“When you look at the complexity of today’s systems, you have to go to 0 ppb quality levels,” said Michael Würtenberger, Vice President for ConnectedDrive Infotainment at BMW.

With reliability as a backdrop, panelists also discussed the challenges they face as the demand for more features and functions forces them to deal with more complex architectures. Microcontrollers throughout the vehicle are interacting more with each other, so getting them to work in sync is becoming more difficult.

“When you use a decentralized architecture, timing and integration are major challenges,” said Alan Amici, Head of Electrical and Electronics Engineering for Chrysler Group LLC.

These challenges are taxing the supply chain in an era when budget and staffing cuts are commonplace. Other panelists agreed that getting modules to work together is a growing challenge as there’s more interaction between systems, as in electronic stability control for which steering and braking work together.

“We need more development effort to combine all this. Otherwise it will take too long,” said Yoshio Suzuki, Senior Chief Engineer at Honda R&D Co. Ltd. “We need systems engineers to make sure it all functions together.”

Software is a key aspect of getting everything to work well together. Panelists estimated that electronics account for 20-30% of the cost of a vehicle. Programs represent a growing percentage of those costs.

“Everything used to be very hardware centric, with a focus on RAM and MIPS,” Amici said. “Innovation is now moving from hardware to software. We’re doing a lot with algorithms.”

Both software and hardware will play critical roles in reliability. Their roles are changing as technology advances.

The trend to electrification is having a big impact on chipmakers, especially in power devices. Those chips will be central to the transition to electric powertrains.

“They need to understand that parts are used differently,” said Michael (Micky) Bly, Executive Director, Global Electrical Systems, Hybrids, Electric Vehicles and Batteries at General Motors Co. “Now, parts are used a few hours a day, but in electric vehicles, they can be on 24 hours a day. Suppliers don’t recognize the quality needed for power electronics.”

Though there’s a ton of publicity surrounding electric vehicles and hybrids, pure gasoline models still account for roughly 95% of U.S. sales, a figure that hasn’t changed even as more hybrid models have entered the market, according to R. L. Polk & Co. That’s prompting some carmakers to focus on reducing fuel consumption without extending battery power.

“Reducing the cost of mild hybrids is where we’re investing,” said Marc Duval-Destin, Director for Research and Advanced Engineering at PSA Peugeot-Citroën.

These efforts will help buy some time while the myriad issues associated with electric vehicles are ironed out. Range anxiety will remain a key obstacle for the market until charging issues are resolved. Many observers feel that telematisc links that show drivers charging stations within their range will be an important factor for EV growth.

“A lot of changes in the infrastructure are needed for electric vehicles; a lot of effort is needed there,” said James Buczkowski, Director Electrical and Electronics Systems Engineering at Ford Motor Co. “They require a lot more connectivity.”

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