The implementation of Ethernet as a universal standard throughout the automotive industry can optimize vehicle performance by reducing the number of electronic control units (ECUs) and associated wiring, thus enabling a smarter, cheaper, and safer future car.
It has become a common refrain among buyers of new cars to say, “It feels like I’m driving a spaceship.” And, in some regards, that feeling is valid — beneath the hood, modern vehicles, like spaceships, run akin to supercomputers. Thus, OEMs are feeling increased pressure to simultaneously increase the ability for vehicles to quickly process ever-growing amounts of data while simultaneously decreasing vehicle network architecture.
As vehicles continue to evolve and offer everything from more immersive entertainment features to safer, more precise autonomy, this problem will worsen. One solution with its roots in the 1970s, however, has the potential to enable the next evolution of automobiles: Ethernet.
Implementing in-vehicle Ethernet
Robert Metcalfe and his colleagues at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center invented Ethernet in the 1970s to, in Metcalfe’s words, solve the problem of connecting a building full of personal computers without creating a centralized “rat’s nest” of wires. Ethernet, simply, is the single-cable solution that Robert and his team ultimately created.
In an automotive capacity, Ethernet acts largely the same: when combined with sufficiently advanced chipsets, it significantly reduces the complexity of a typical vehicle’s networking system. In automotive terms, that equates to domain vehicle architecture (Figure 1) versus Ethernet-based centralized vehicle architecture (Figure 2). Automotive Ethernet, however, is built to withstand more difficult conditions than faced by a typical data center — automotive Ethernet is built to operate in environments of varying climates and terrains of varying toughness.
Vehicle architectures today are evolving away from domain-centric controllers, and thus, vehicular networking capacity must be able to process the higher data rates necessitated by advanced applications like Advanced Driver-Assisted Systems (ADAS), autonomous driving (AD), and a wide range of software updates delivered over the air (OTA). Challengingly, the future vehicle must meet these demands while simultaneously delivering improved reliability and security.
Ethernovia’s Ethernet-based architecture is designed to enable a seamless, holistic, and streamlined hardware and software system that meets this demand through the integration of advanced networking features targeting the future of software-defined vehicles.
So, why the shift to Ethernet now?
Ethernet actually began to appear in mainstream automotive implementations a decade ago. BMW was the first to introduce Ethernet in consumer vehicles back in 2008; since then, more than 90 percent of car manufacturers have incorporated Ethernet in their vehicles.
Several features then laid the path for Ethernet’s wider automotive adoption. Ethernet ‘T1’ transceivers were designed to meet the stringent OEM EMI/RFI requirements for the automotive market as well as reducing 75 percent of the copper cable by operating over a single pair as opposed to the four pairs used for Enterprise Ethernet. This reduction had a significant impact on the weight and cost of the wiring harness. Additionally, Ethernet’s open standard environment meant there were several suppliers creating solutions as opposed to the single vendor solution for some of the legacy automotive technologies — driving innovation and providing second-source options, which are key for automotive OEMs.
Finally, enhancing network protocols took traditional ‘best-effort’ Ethernet and provided time-bound, guaranteed delivery of in-vehicle data.
In the last decade, and with the continuous forward momentum in features and speeds available, we have seen Ethernet move from deployment in diagnostics and infotainment to deployment throughout all domains in the vehicle.
Enabling a Smarter Vehicle
As shown in Figure 1, many different networks exist in cars today to connect ECUs in the vehicle. With the advent of new features making cars ever smarter, there is a perpetually increasing amount of bandwidth in the car to support these applications. OEMs need increasing compute resources to deal with this data while simultaneously simplifying the vehicles with the consolidation of ECUs.
The result? A huge demand for high bandwidth, low latency, and secure networking technology to efficiently move data around the vehicle.
In 2022, Forbes solicited predictions from technology experts on the features they expected to see in future vehicles. The predictions were wide-ranging: autonomy, of course; cars serving as fully functioning office spaces with 5G connectivity; advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities; enhanced privacy and cybersecurity; augmented reality navigation; and more.
Future vehicles with these capabilities, however, can never be built on the networking infrastructure most automakers have in place today, given the requisite increase in processing demand. With an Ethernet-based, in-vehicle, end-to-end networking solution as the backbone, however, auto engineers and designers will be empowered to realize the smart ‘future cars’ the technology industry and automotive evangelists prognosticate about today.
Enabling a safer vehicle
A subset of the smart(er) vehicles is ADAS and AU, which have evolved significantly over the past decade. The two exist across six levels of complexity:
- Level 0: Manual driving
- Level 1: Driver assistance
- Level 2: Partial automation (“feet off”)
- Level 3: Conditional automation (“hands off”)
- Level 4: High automation (“eyes off”)
- Level 5: Full automation (“mind off”)
The majority of cars today actually exist at level zero — fully manual — with newer vehicles implementing level one and level two. Progressing beyond those levels requires an exponentiating amount of bandwidth which can be seen in Figure 3.
Such progression, however, is necessary to ultimately improve safety on the road. A 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found human error to be the “major factor” in 94 percent of all fatal crashes. A 2018 report from Automotive Management stated:
The growing penetration of ADAS, such as automated emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, and lane assist, will result in a 15% reduction in the number of accidents in the four main European markets (France, Germany, Italy, and the UK) by 2030.
Sufficiently advancing ADAS and AU technology begins with a capable vehicle network — and that begins with an Ethernet and silicon-based solution.
Enabling a cheaper vehicle
Moving forward, OEMs are trying to further consolidate ECUs and functions. Ethernet aggregates traffic into a single backbone, reducing the need for a complex wiring harness, associated connectors, and myriad required legacy transceivers. This aggregation provides a significant cost saving to the OEMs with the added benefit of security, simplicity, and — very importantly — weight reduction using the ‘T1’ single-pair automotive transceivers.
For consumers, lighter vehicles equate to greater fuel economy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “a 10 percent reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6 percent-8 percent fuel economy improvement.” The Department of Energy also underscores the importance of weight reduction in enabling longer-range electric vehicles:
While any vehicle can use lightweight materials, they are especially important for hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and electric vehicles. Using lightweight materials in these vehicles can offset the weight of power systems such as batteries and electric motors, improving efficiency and increasing their all-electric range. Alternatively, the use of lightweight materials could result in needing a smaller and lower-cost battery while keeping the all-electric range of plug-in vehicles constant.
Range anxiety represents one of the top concerns hindering the broader purchasing of electric vehicles, with the World Economic Forum, citing a 2022 study by EY, noting about one-third of drivers worldwide express concerns about driving long distances in these vehicles.
So, by making vehicles lighter, OEMs benefit in manufacturing costs, consumers benefit in extended fuel range, and the planet, by extension, benefits from the wider adoption of non-carbon-emitting vehicles.
Looking to the future
A major proof point in the market’s belief in the further complexification of vehicles is the forecasted segment growth over the next decade. Future Market Insights estimates the global automotive connectivity market to grow from $33.42 billion today to $190.29 billion by 2033.
Consumers today have seen the promise of vehicular innovation and the promises they hold for smarter, safer, and cheaper driving options. That future will be realized, but only if networks can process increasing demand. Ethernet is the best solution to meet that demand.
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