The automotive industry – like most other industries – is grappling with the role it plays in creating a more sustainable planet. This earth-friendly focus is accelerating the biggest transformation the industry has seen since Ford launched the first assembly line almost 100 years ago. Whether it’s driven by customer demand, competitors or government regulations, the industry has a unique opportunity to reinvent itself and its vehicles.

In part one of this two-part series, we’ll look at the role new technologies play in creating more sustainable vehicles and drive digital transformation in the automotive industry.

Reinventing automotive technology to drives success

Technology advancement plus brash entrepreneurism make alternative, sustainable vehicles a realistic choice to the internal combustion engine. With more efficient electric motors and use of lithium sulfur batteries,  electric vehicles have become more attractive to drivers. And hydrogen fuel cell technology—as it continues to mature — is another option on the near horizon.

Undoubtedly, these automotive technologies will cause waves through the supplier/partner ecosystem. OEMs and suppliers are spending billions to retool manufacturing. And they’re opening the door to new disruptive entrants in the automotive industry. In fact, according to IBM research, 50% of automotive execs say that to succeed – or even just survive – they need to digitally reinvent themselves.

How software based electrical and electronic architecture is leading this transformation

The electrical architecture of vehicles has developed over the years as OEMs have added new discrete hardware and software. Containing anywhere from 100-150 microprocessors or electronic control units (ECUs) with smart sensors and actuators across multiple unique wiring networks (Figure 1) – vehicles are increasingly directed by software — today using more than 100 million lines of code. They’re now looking to reduce the number of ECUs, as new functionalities are being achieved by using existing components and capabilities to create new vehicle function.

Figure 1. Evolution of automobile connections from wires to wireless sensors

To increase functionality and flexibility, vehicles need to simplify their wiring and reduce the number of ECUs, making auto manufacturers ripe for digital transformation. While it sounds like it may decrease complexity, it is only true from a mechanical perspective. In actuality, the complexity increases in the order of magnitude or more. The question is, why?

The software from these discrete ECUs was original designed for an older discrete architecture. The software only had to worry about a signal going from an ECU to its sensor on a dedicated wire and a signal going to the actuator on a dedicated wire as well. As companies combine this software, many of the signals start to mix. That means we need a new architecture to identify and separate these signals.

This new architecture will likely be zonal-based, leveraging a single networking protocol like ethernet or time-sensitive network ethernet in a ring-based architecture. This also includes moving to much fewer computing units; some industry analysts suggest as few as one or two in the next five to 10 years.

Defining the next-gen – and its engineers – by software defined vehicles

Further driving the digitization of the industry, this next-gen automotive architecture will shift the traditional focus from mechanically defined to a true software-defined vehicle. It’s predicted that by 2030, software will account for 90 percent of innovations in the vehicle and lines of code will be a hundredfold what they are today.

For those in the industry, this also means many new skills will be required.  In fact, automotive experts expect the industry to spend over USD 33 billion to reskill their employees by 2030. Engineers, especially in systems engineering, will need retraining as opposed to using pure mechanical engineering skills to do their work. Other changes will include:

  • Placing greater focus on how to leverage and reuse the investments in existing vehicles into sustainable vehicles.
  • Combining the functions and software from existing, single purpose ECUs with a new zonal architecture running in a central computing unit and across a ring-based ethernet architecture. This is not as simple as cutting and pasting the software from one ECU to another. Reducing the number of ECUs will introduce new challenges including overlapping signal IDs and new latency issues.

Driving automotive digital transformation with cross-domain engineering solutions

In the pivot to more sustainable vehicles, the nexus of complexity is the convergence of mechanical, software and electrical engineering. To succeed, companies need tight process and tools integration between these disciplines. Indeed, most ASPICE assessors agree: the touch point between these is the most common point of ASPICE assessment failures. That’s why we work with automotive industry leaders to make sure our systems and software design tools deliver the best possible electrical engineering solution, thus transforming automotive engineering by tackling complexity.

Everyone wants to create products more efficiently. Our customers look to us for industry-specific software and services that they can combine with their own ingenuity to innovate, differentiate, and succeed in an aggressively competitive market.

To help our customers improve processes while ensuring compliance, we offer a comprehensive solution, IBM Engineering Lifecycle Management (ELM).  This solution helps companies develop tomorrow’s products in a smarter, safer, and more cost-effective way.

Read our next blog in this series to understand why automobile compliance and traceability matters and how automotive companies are achieving a seamless product development lifecycle.

About the author: Mr. Hillhouse is the Global Automotive Leader for IBM. His responsibility includes industry and technology strategy, as well as customer success for automotive companies around the world. His 25+ years of industry experience include transformation engagements at global automotive and aerospace OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers. The scope of these engagements includes transformation of product development, reuse strategy and implementation, industry compliance and AI applications. Previously, Mr. Hillhouse has held several industry and leadership positions at IBM and Siemens (formerly SDRC). Mr. Hillhouse holds a BS in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Cornell University.

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