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  Electronics (development)





When one says that 'electronics' have developed rapidly, what one primarily means, are the performance electronics over the last two decades, regulation by micro-controllers and the accompanying software. There are actually three big promoters of more and more activity in this area, the environmental compatability, security and the development and/or the repairability of motor vehicles.

As far as emission is concerned, it's basically a race. Since, right from the beginning, actually only approx. 1% of the exhaust gas is damaging to the environment, both the legislators and the automobile industry are constantly sharpening up their methods. Without (digital-) electronics, we would still be at square one, which is also valid for security precautions. The demands for speed and precision are simply too high.

Accompanying this, considerable possibilities for the manufacturers to earn more money have arisen. What is meant, is the comfort factor of the automobile, the most important parameter distinguishing a simply- from a fully equipped model. In the meantime, there are even hybrid forms, which can be very often be found in the parking assistants. It offers a minor safety factor because, e.g., people standing in the way are considered, it has also increased the comfort factor, because also in extreme cases, one no longer has to leave the car.

For some, the assistants even go too far, because they allow the drivers to become careless. There is a case in the USA, where someone thought his camper could drive itself, he thought that cruise-control not only regulated the speed, but could also steer the car and apply the brakes. In the meantime, the automobile industry is one of the largest buyers of this type of semi-conductor, bringing with it, the advantage of low prices.

If earlier, the starter and generator were the devices consuming the most current, because of the growing demands on electric-drive-trains, the electronics must now also regulate higher perfomance, thus finally, becoming an electronic performance component itself. This exceeds by far, the capabilities (and the cost) of a shunt-relay, which, still today, plays an important role as an interface between switching circuits in the milli-Ampere range and the consumption right up to the kW limit.

When looking at a car from the outside, there is one area which is easily overseen, the application of electronics during it's development. Right from the word go, the software and the hardware is applied, to enable the designing, the calculation, the simulation including extensive computer testing and also any number of further dynamometer tests. Of course, even the manufacture of the first prototypes is made much simple through the application of computers.

A plasticine model is produced with the help of a robot, which is fed with 3D-data. A milling machine makes parts of an injection pump with perfect accuracy from an aliminium cube. A machine, using a water-jet, cuts the inside part of a wheel rim where only a relatively simple blueprint is available. Even the smallest series e.g., Rolls-Royce, are assembled largely by machines. How long will it take before a formless sheet of metal can be shaped in all directions and used, by applying only computer data?

It gets even much more complicated. Not only the amount of control devices and their possible spare parts which may be necessary, is frightening, also the capability of each individual component. Not only can they carry endless amounts of data, but also programs, which, in the meantime, can even influence the steering wheel of a moving vehicle. Whoever has already developed a computer program themselves, from the simple beginnings to a really big object, will know all about the difficulties. Therefore, quite a few observers of this development are apprehensive that a software disaster, similar to the one e.g., in the PC- branch, could one day occur.

In the case of motor vehicles, a disaster like that would cause danger to human lives. However, the strategists do have an antidote. They test the software using other software. Before e.g., a new networking method is unleashed on an actual vehicle, it has to pass multiple tests. This naturally requires, that the BUS-participants behave like an unruly school-class so that one can observe how the network protocols manage the situation.

Also the emergency situation is not that simple to master. The possibility of an electronic brake simply engaging without warning due to a software collapse, is not always appropriate to the situation. What then, if the same thing happens with the steering software? Do we carry on driving with the chosen steering angle? OK, one could activate the brake through a BUS-system, indeed, is this the best possible solution, that the passengers rely on urgently?

Perhaps it's also a partial solution, that computers develop their software themselves. In this case, standards are necessary, which, in increasing cooperation with the manufacturers in the data processing area, are more efficiently supervised. There are already so called 'capability maturity models', which are used in the developing of software. More on this subject can be found here. The sub-dividing of software into individual, more manageable modules has always been a good method of avoiding errors. The situation is additionally aggravated by the fact that so many suppliers are involved in these processes. In the computer branch e.g., Microsoft closed a great number of back doors for hackers, which were however, opened again through ineptly written user programs.

Finally, we come to the systems, which instead of costing the car driver money, they (hopefully) lead to money saving e.g., in the workshop. It's still a long road to having the computer, which is linked to the manufacturer, next to the hoist. Although the mechanic's job is sometimes easier, unfortunately it has also become more monotonous. Many years ago he could still make his decisions (almost) freely, he is now bound e.g., by guarantee regulations to carry out a 'guided' error analysis, which only means clamping on and pressing buttons in the correct order.

The customers could probably no longer afford any free working in the workshop. At least the repair success, through the prescribed multiple testing, has led to a significant improvement for some manufacturers, for which, at least partially, the application of electronics is responsible. The customer is of course grateful, because the maintenance of a motor car is costly enough nowadays. Perhaps it would be stimulating for the mechanic, if he could, perhaps through an advanced training course, move a little, away from the rigid guidance of the computers. 02/11

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