Automotive electronics complexity at tipping point, study warns

August 04, 2015 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
Features and functions are added at rapid pace to new cars. Typically, the E/E engineers add a dedicated electronic control unit (ECU) for every new function. This approach is hitting its limits, because it increases the complexity. Consultancy Roland Berger sounds the alarm.

Adding a new ECU for new features is no longer sustainable, the study says. Dedicated processors, memories and other electronic components for new features increases cost and architecture complexity, says Thomas Wendt, Senior Partner in Roland Berger’s North American Automotive Practice. The solution he suggests is module consolidation. This approach would leverage modern technologies to add speed and flexibility to vehicle electronic architectures, while saving cost. The consultancy estimates at average $175 per vehicle for cockpit electronics.

"All major automotive trends today, from improved cockpit electronics to new ADAS features, are largely enabled by advanced electronics systems," says Wendt. "OEMs will not be able to keep up with consumer's expectations, both in terms of quality and price, if they continue to add ECUs every time they want to add a new feature. A 'blank sheet' approach to electronic architecture design is needed."

Module consolidation is a technical solution leveraging modern, multicore processing technologies to operate multiple ECUs which all traditionally had their own processors. In a multicore solution, these ECUs retain dedicated processing space, usually in the form of their own core in the processor. However, a number of redundant components are eliminated, including housings, power supplies, wire mounts and harnesses, as well as the processors themselves, all saving cost. Additionally, ECUs communicate within the processor itself instead of communicating over a network such as the CAN bus; increasing speed and reducing complexity.

The study quantifies the cost advantages of module consolidation from the perspective of an OEM. Taking a sample set of cockpit electronics, Roland Berger conducted a total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis, comparing the cost of independent ECUs to the cost of a consolidation solution running on a multicore processor with the same feature and function set. The result was a TCO advantage of $175 per vehicle, including direct piece price savings which are just the "tip of the iceberg." The savings identified also include indirect, yet quantifiable, advantages of consolidation such as weight savings.