Modern vehicles commonly are described as “computers-on-wheels” due to the recent explosion of computing power and electronic features manufacturers are equipping in their vehicles. The world’s first automobiles, however, were relatively simple, and entirely mechanically operated. The first automotive electrical components were not even available until the 1930s, when manufacturers began offering vacuum tube radios.
Over time, vehicles have become dramatically more complex due to technological advances and consumer trends. Mechanical systems accounted for most of this complexity for much of the car’s history, but electrical and electronic systems have steadily increased in sophistication. Today, a majority of vehicle features are aided or enabled by electronic components and the underlying electrical and electronic (E/E) architecture. Engine management, braking, steering, infotainment, and other comfort and convenience features rely on the electrical and electronic systems. Embedded software has also come to play a dominant role in vehicle functionality. Modern cars contain millions of lines of code that make up applications for everything from the most advanced infotainment and passive safety features to the automatic door locks.
As vehicle features continue to evolve and grow in sophistication, previously unrelated subsystems will come into contact. Systems that previously evolved independently will begin to integrate, and depend on each other to achieve new functionalities. The introduction of cruise control in the late 1950s was the first integration of electrical and mechanical systems in a vehicle (Figure 1a). Since then, cruise control has continued to evolve. Adaptive cruise control systems allow modern cars to slow down and speed up as needed to maintain a driver-determined following distance (Figure 1b). And, automated emergency braking systems can bring vehicles to a complete stop even if the driver is not paying attention.
The result of this innovation and integration is a tremendously complex system of electronic control units (ECUs), sensors, actuators, and wiring to connect it all together. The size and complexity of these architectures create new challenges for automotive OEMs and their suppliers. These challenges will only become more intense as companies continue to advance vehicle technologies, particularly in the automated driving space. In this environment, the importance of the underlying E/E architecture is paramount.