It may look like a simple mechanical device but behind this pedal, Toyota (like other automakers) has wired up a spider's web of electronic controls.
The ongoing Toyota safety crisis is putting the spotlight on the use of electronic controls for critical vehicle systems such as brakes and throttle. During today’s hearings, on Capitol Hill, testimony raised serious questions about Toyota’s claims that it had developed a safe and reliable engine controller that could and would not cause vehicles to unexpectedly surge out of control.
Whether or not the automaker is ultimately cleared, with more electronic content in cars today, especially as electronic systems replace mechanical functions, a fundamental question has arisen: Are automakers equipped with the right tools to design and develop these digital systems — and, more importantly, do they have the right testing mentality?
(A university professor’s 3-hour experiment could show that Toyota electronic systems are flawed. Click Here for that story.)
The electrical and electronics complexity inside cars today is enormous, and with relentless attention focused on fuel economy, reduced emissions and improvements in safety, it’s unlikely to abate. By some estimates, as much as 40% of the value of some premium cars will be in the onboard electronic systems by mid-decade. It’s like having a full computer network on wheels.
“Frequently a single function – braking, for example – involves multiple electronic control units (ECUs), as well as a lot of application software, communication software stacks, and operating systems,” explains Serge Leef, vice president at Mentor Graphics. His firm markets software that car makers use to verify that the communications between ECUs are transmitted and received accurately and on time.
“There may be one ECU that controls the brake pedal, another for tire rotation information, and another responsible for braking signals – and it’s quite possible that all three ECUs come from different vendors. When you consider what happens when the driver hits the brakes, the opportunities for error from network communication inside the vehicle are phenomenal,” Leef says.
“If all the computers involved come from different sources, and the only way they know how to communicate is because the automaker gave the suppliers specifications for the type and timing of each message, the first time that everything comes together is in the automaker’s lab.”