The latest vehicles can be updated just like smartphones or notebooks. This takes a huge amount of computing power. High-performance computers are revolutionizing the vehicle architecture.
The amount of electronics in our vehicles has been growing for decades. Today dozens of networked control units (ECUs) regulate and control basic functions like braking and steering, infotainment, airbags and automatic air-conditioning. A car may contain over 100 such ECUs, depending on its category and equipment level. These systems have to communicate and they require a lot of energy. For this reason, a modern mid-range vehicle contains more than two kilometers of wiring. As a result, cars long ago became computers on wheels. But now they are about to ratchet up their computing power. Intuitive displays, intelligent assistants, increasing connectivity and not least autonomous driving functions demand ever more powerful computers in order to function. The existing tangle of on-board electronics and different control devices is, however, coming up against its limits. Now the time has come for high-performance computers (HPC). In the automotive industry, HPCs represent a quantum leap in technology. And in the future, nothing in the car will work without them.
When a smartphone is sold, it uses only a fifth of its capabilities. It gets better with every update, so the product matures while it is with the customer. HPCs offer this flexibility for cars. Drivers can upload the apps and services of their choice into the car, like they do with their smartphones. This is all done with wireless technology over the mobile communication network or Wi-Fi – “over the air” (OTA). It also allows “function on demand” whereby motorists can buy or adapt certain functions at a later date. This will make vehicles more individual than ever before. Updates for security loopholes and bugfixes can also be installed easily – without needing to visit the repair shop. What is more, buyers of used cars will benefit because they can add functions that the first owner didn’t take up. OTA can also be used to install updates on deeper levels, such as the chassis and assistance systems. This helps enormously in retaining the car’s value, because it will always have the current version of the software throughout its lifecycle. Furthermore, OTA will open up for other providers a marketplace for completely new functions and business models – similar to the way smartphones have created a market for apps.
Tesla drivers have already enjoyed the convenience function for several years. Their electric cars receive regular software updates over the air, which install new features and enhance existing ones. As soon as an update is available, a notification appears on the car’s touchscreen. Recently the Holiday Update was introduced: alongside new computer games for the infotainment system and upgraded display visualizations, it offers US customers the Boombox function. This enables an external loudspeaker to play standard sound files or customized sounds as warnings to pedestrians while the vehicle is traveling slowly. Volkswagen is now presenting its new electric models such as the ID.3 and ID.4 based on the ICAS1 – the in-car application server. The revolutionary aspect here is the separation of hardware and software. To achieve this, VW’s new solution bundles electronic functions technically in one place and reduces the number of control units with manufacturer-specific software to a minimum. This means that depending on the vehicle category and features, only two or three HPCs will provide all the electrical power and the wide range of functions.
Reducing and rearranging the ECUs can also greatly streamline the wiring needed. This is a real advantage for EVs because they benefit in particular from carrying less weight. Continental has developed a small silver box that is about the size of a paperback, and in the future it will be able to take over central functions in millions of EVs. The company is the first supplier in the world to put a high-performance server for vehicles into series production. Its competitor Bosch is also focusing on high-performance computers as the technical basis for digitizing modern vehicles. The first solutions should appear on the market in 2021. Like Continental, the company has now received orders worth several billion euros for its vehicle computers. In January 2021, the new business unit Cross-Domain Computing Solutions started operations with a total of 17,000 employees. Bosch is bringing together both hardware and software development for computers, sensors, and control units in this strategic unit. The supplier Aptiv plans to introduce its “Smart Vehicle Architecture” from 2025 onward, with central and server-based computing units. The revolution is in progress.
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