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OEMs Focus on Technology, Standards at Convergence

The “Car Makers Speak” panel will gauge each OEM’s interest in various technologies and standards, such as FlexRay and Autosar, as well as open-source software development.

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Every other year, the Convergence Transportation Electronics Conference brings with it a spirited discourse about the latest developments affecting both the technology and business side of automotive electronics.

This year’s conference, slated for Oct. 20-22 at Detroit’s Cobo Center, will carry on the tradition.

One of the staples of the event is an OEM panel session hosted by electronics expert Paul Hansen, who hasn’t missed a Convergence conference since 1988.

The “Car Makers Speak” panel will be held 10 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21, in Cobo’s Riverview Ballroom.

Panelists include James Buczkowski, director-electrical and electronics systems engineering implementation at Ford Motor Co.; William Mattingly, vice president-electrical/electronics Engineering Core at Chrysler LLC; Toyohei Nakajima, senior chief engineer at Honda R&D Co. Ltd; and Chris Thibodeau, director-global technology engineering, Electrical/Electronics Products at General Motors Corp.

Additional speakers are expected as well, particularly from BMW AG, says Hansen, president and publisher of The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics.

As it does every year at Convergence, the OEM panel will gauge each auto maker’s interest in various technologies and standards.

“It’s a terrific opportunity to get each of the car makers to say definitively whether they are committed to various standards being looked at,” Hansen says.

FlexRay and the Automotive Open System Architecture (Autosar) are among the emerging electronic standards bound to come up at Convergence.

The FlexRay communications protocol is being deployed in a growing number of vehicles. Originally designed to handle by-wire steering and braking systems, the protocol is expected to replace many of today’s less-capable CAN bus networks.

Likewise, the Autosar standard is advancing in body electronics and powertrain applications, soon to be followed by chassis and safety-related uses.

More than 100 auto makers and suppliers collaborated on Autosar, designed to produce electronic control units that are interchangeable and reusable in other parts of the vehicle. The framework is open-ended enough to allow for the specific components to differentiate from others in the marketplace.

Hansen notes that global adoption of Autosar has been slow, “but car makers are taking a step-by-step approach with it, led by BMW.”

He expects the panel also will discuss open-source platforms used for software- development tools and for infotainment applications.

Open-source platforms are significant because they represent a completely new route for software development.

Today, a new communications protocol begins with a proposed standard, followed by implementation of products using the standard. “You build something to see if it works,” Hansen says. “If it doesn’t work, then you change the standard.”

But with the open-source route, the process is reversed, beginning with implementation. “That implementation becomes the standard,” he says, suggesting this process could save years of development time.

Open-sourcing involves a community of software developers agreeing to contribute knowledge to a particular program. The participants sign a license allowing the information to be shared and the software to be changed by others in the community.

“It’s a very direct approach to standards making. This is potentially groundbreaking,” Hansen says, noting that several auto makers are advancing the concept. FlexRay and Autosar are not examples of open-source development, he says.

Other hot topics Hansen expects to surface in this year’s “Car Makers Speak” panel – and at the conference in general – are active safety, fuel efficiency and carbon-dioxide emissions reduction.

With high fuel prices in the U.S. affecting vehicle-purchase decisions, he expects discussions about fuel efficiency to trump safety.

Hansen says the panel is popular with conference attendees because it represents one of the few occasions in which suppliers are privy to the strategic thinking of the world’s largest auto makers, all at one event.

“Suppliers come to this session to find opportunities, particularly investment opportunities,” Hansen says. “They want to find out what things the auto makers are working on; what things will find their way onto automobiles; what challenges they face; and how suppliers can help.”

Keeping the discussion lively among some of the sharpest minds in automotive electronics really isn’t that difficult, Hansen says.

“I think the panelists like the give-and-take with each other,” he says. “If they hear something that doesn’t sit well, I try to get them to issue a rejoinder or ask a question themselves.”

His primary stipulation to panelists is that they refrain from giving speeches or blatant marketing pitches. The speakers almost always oblige, Hansen says.

With a sluggish economy hurting vehicle sales and component production from suppliers, Hansen says he expects attendance to be down this year at Convergence, although he notes Chrysler’s Mattingly is urging all his electrical engineers to attend the event.

“I’m hoping other car makers do the same,” he says.

SAE International, which runs the Convergence conference, anticipates some 8,000 attendees this year. The first Convergence conference was held in 1974 in Troy, MI, and drew some 300 people.

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