Electronic components are proliferating in vehicle programs, bringing bumper-to-bumper intelligence to devices that, years ago, interacted with each other through purely mechanical means.
Engines, transmissions, brakes, steering systems, suspension components, seats, windows, doors and instrument panels have turned many of today's vehicles into a maze of unseen electronic control units (ECUs), with each “brain” dedicated to a specific function.
This is true from moderately priced to luxury models. The new Volkswagen Golf, for instance, has some 40 ECUs, while the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes S-Class each have more than 70.
In some cases, vehicles have gotten too smart for their own good, as many of Mercedes' recent quality problems have been traced to the complexity of new electronic components.
The result could be a scaling back of electronics in vehicles, something Herbert Hanselmann wants to prevent. Electronic components merely need to communicate better with each other, Hanselmann insists. His company, DSpace GmbH, is helping auto makers and suppliers prove out those systems well before production starts.
“OEMs don't want to add too much functionality because of the complexity,” says Hanselmann, president and CEO of DSpace, based in Paderborn, Germany. Hanselmann helped found the company in 1988 to design tools for rapid development and testing of mechatronic control systems.
DSpace produces testing equipment that allows OEMs and suppliers to evaluate the compatibility and robustness of ECUs before they ever have a chance to influence a J.D. Power & Associates ranking.
While auto makers and suppliers huddle in their separate silos to develop the latest electronic gadget, Hanselmann contends the big-picture integration within vehicles has been lacking.
“ECUs in German cars come from many sources and don't always communicate well with each other,” Hanselmann says. “Testing was not keeping pace with the growth of electronics.”
He refers to one quality survey that found 50% of warranty costs for auto makers are related to electronics.
OEMs want fewer ECUs in vehicles. Audi AG wants to reduce its number of body ECUs from 20 to two, to reduce complexity. “Does every door need its own ECU?” Hanselmann asks.
DSpace focuses on testing production electronic controllers, specifically the control algorithms and diagnostic functions. The company says it has more than 12,000 systems in use worldwide.
Some 80% of DSpace's revenue is derived from the auto industry. Its customers are the world's largest vehicle makers and suppliers.
As governments impose stricter environmental regulations, the industry is facing a raft of technical challenges. For instance, diesel engines will need particle filters because particulates remain a problem, even for today's increasingly advanced diesels.
Embedded electronic controllers are being used as an active part of this particulate filtering. DSpace tools are being used to prototype, generate software for and test these controllers.
One of the company's most successful tools for this type of process is TargetLink, a system that's become valuable to development engineers in several transportation industries.
In one application, MAN AG, the German commercial-vehicle producer, is using TargetLink to automatically generate the software for their Controlled Continuously Regenerating Trap (CCRT) system that can cut particle emissions by up to 90%.
Chrysler Group used TargetLink to generate production code for the electronic transfer case and electronically controlled limited slip differentials on the '05 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. used RapidPro, DSpace's new system that streamlines integration of automotive sensors and actuators, as part of a “rapid control prototyping” application for the auto maker's well-known VQ V-6 engine family.
Mercedes-Benz used RapidPro to evaluate the ECUs that govern Active Body Control, the advanced suspension system that counteracts undesirable body movement on several of its model ranges.
Parent DaimlerChrysler AG also purchased from DSpace a “hardware-in-the-loop” (HIL) simulator that allows actual ECUs to operate in conjunction with a virtual control-unit environment running on a real-time computer.
Mercedes used this HIL simulator, located in Sindelfingen, Germany, for development of the new A-Class, and DC was pleased enough with the outcome to purchase other simulators from DSpace. Each is priced at about $1.2 million.