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Comment: Meeting the challenges of evolving auto electronics

  • Author:Ella Cai
  • Release on:2017-09-28
Tomorrow’s electronic engineers can jump into the auto industry fast lane through real-world project-based learning, writes Dr Coorous Mohtadi of MathWorks

The challenges of auto electronic engineering are being stretched by the need to design in new capabilities like autonomous driving modes, as well as supporting better safety features and the rapid transition to electric vehicles.

1981 was the year when the first mass market cars came with an engine control unit (ECU), namely the first computer installed in a car. And so, began the journey towards today’s significantly greater scope and scale of automotive electronics. It is estimated that the average car has around a hundred computers onboard and relies on over a 100 million lines of software code to execute a wide range of functions from managing the engine to controlling the air bags.

Connected car

The current fast-paced trend for more connected car functionality and integrating more autonomous driving modes from cruise control to parking is piling on more layers of electronic and embedded software design.

Linked to this, the industry is exploring how autonomous vehicle-to- vehicle communication can be harnessed for more real-time driver safety, for example the connected car around the corner ahead automatically warning all other cars behind it of a patch of black ice.

The car industry is having to execute many, if not all, of these new complex embedded systems engineering manoeuvres at speed and almost simultaneously. There is a wave of announcements from manufacturers about these and other new features in addition to commitments to electric variants for some or all models within a few years.
Keeping pace with this change means auto electronics is evolving from its recent past of embedded systems everywhere within a car to a new class of embedded applications that are about artificial intelligence everywhere.
Auto design engineer evolve

Taking the car to this new future as fast as the industry wants, depends on how the role of the auto design engineer must evolve too.

Success depends on an injection of new electronics talent that may be best found outside of the traditional auto engineering community. Designing and building a car is less about oil and mechanics but more about systems, and systems of systems to include electronics, software, intelligence, communications, networks and human factors.

This is leading the industry to rethink how it engages with universities and other academic institutions. There is a desire for new approaches that can identify more quickly future auto designers who blend together physical and digital engineering disciplines with a clear aptitude to work in the industry.

Universities also feel they need to revamp how they teach engineering subjects and support students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers in fields like automotive engineering. Their challenge was set out in last year’s Royal Academy of Engineering report “The UK STEM Education Landscape” which revealed that fewer than half of UK domiciled engineering students enter professional engineering occupations.

So what practical steps are being taken by the automotive industry and the higher education sector to bring forward the next generation of digitally-aware and skilled engineers?

Practical steps

A model for what could be achieved in providing a pipeline of talent is the Formula Student competition. Formula Student is one such competition in the world where teams of student engineers from a wide range of universities start with nothing and then must conceptualise, design, build, test and race their own formula-style vehicles, and then “show” their work to a panel of judges who determine how well each team explains the logic behind the design process

The value of this competition to the industry is how the teams work with the same modelling and simulation tools that are used in the car industry itself. For example, student teams simulate their designs and accelerate prototyping, which reduces the number of physical models they must produce. Control algorithms modelled in the tools can be deployed onto ECUs (engine control units) installed within the cars. This lets them try many more experiments while still getting their projects across the finish line faster.

In answering the need for more innovative teaching methods that enthuse students to go for a STEM career after graduating, this project-based learning approach also delivers the soft skills that the automotive industry needs for next generation auto engineers. The competition develops and spotlights the communication and collaborative skills needed as well as testing technical know-how and problem solving sometimes under pressure.

How project learning can be a real source of innovation that could be transformative for the industry is illustrated by some striking results from the Formula Student competition.

Formula Student

The Guinness Book of World Records record-holder for fastest electric car acceleration from 0-100 km/h is a Formula Student team from Zurich with a time of 1.513 seconds. This record was also formerly held by another Formula Student team from Stuttgart. As auto companies look to beat their competitors with electric cars that match and maybe exceed internal combustion engines, identifying the young talent who could tweak firmware to gain a performance edge is hugely appealing.

What’s also significant about Formula Student is its scale and pedigree. Each year the competition has 550 teams each with around 30 team members, offering a large and rich pool of talent for automotive companies who get involved in the competition to engage with and see in action. Since Formula Student was set up 20 years ago, it really has become a proving ground for the automotive industry with thousands of contestants subsequently hired by the top auto engineering employers.

Because of how the competition is so centred around using the same modelling and simulation tools as used by the industry to build next generation vehicles makes this example of project-based learning so well placed for finding those future engineers.

Competitors can work on developing the data based algorithms that can analyse data flows from onboard sensors that enable the car to win a race as might be used for an autonomous driving function in a regular car.

Project-based learning

Project-based learning and participation in such competitions should be an integral part of how more STEM disciplines are taught. It offers a way to stimulate both the skills and imaginations of the students, increasing their future employability and thus feeding the increased demand for engineering talent in all kinds of industries in addition to automotive.