Modern Vehicles Transform Automotive Test Departments

How do test engineers adapt in the face of fast-moving technologies?

Modern vehicles are undergoing a radical transformation as the car becomes smarter. Trends like electrification, active safety, and V2X promise to change the way we view transportation and live our lives. What started with convenience features like backup cameras and parking assistance has advanced into life-saving features like emergency braking. Cars also are becoming their own microgrids, with the ability to not only store but recover energy through techniques like regenerative braking.

But with great power comes great responsibility. That responsibility is placed directly on the shoulders of automotive test departments, which must develop testing capabilities to ensure the quality, reliability, and safety of these systems. This article will explore the automotive challenges introduced by these trends and how test tools are evolving to keep up with the pace of innovation.

Enhancing Safety and Mobility for All

Every year, more than 1.25 million people are killed and millions more are injured in traffic accidents worldwide.1 As vehicles advance toward autonomous operation, drivers are gaining a new level of safety from advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). The potential impact to help reduce traffic deaths and improve mobility is monumental. But unfortunately, self-driving cars being tested on the road today have already added to this total. To ensure that these vehicles are safer than human drivers, testing must become more rigorous. Trusted and traceable results are needed to verify that multiple subsystems and software algorithms are functioning correctly.

Autonomous vehicles produce an unprecedented amount of data. (Systems must simulate driving 140 million kilometers to prove they are as safe as a human driver.) But collecting the data isn’t the main challenge. The critical nature of these safety systems requires extreme attention to detail and the ability to learn from the data the exact causes of failure during testing. Mismanaging data at any step of the test process risks product development roadblocks or drawing incorrect conclusions. To quickly gain insights, maintain traceability, and make data-driven decisions, engineers must be prepared to search, process, and generate reports on terabytes of data gathered from any test from these vehicles.

Race to Electrification

Over one-fifth of global greenhouse gases are emitted by the transportation sector.2 Growing concerns about climate change are driving stricter fuel efficiency regulations for automakers to reduce CO­2 emissions. Additionally, governments around the world are announcing mandates for limited or no combustion engine vehicles to be sold after specific dates. For example, Germany and the United Kingdom have established deadlines for the end of sales for new gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2030 and 2040, respectively.

Automakers are racing to design smarter powertrain systems to comply with strict fuel efficiency regulations. (Image source: National Instruments)

Hybrid and fully electric vehicles are leading the way in the redesign of smarter powertrain systems. The electrification of the vehicle powertrain delivers more power, lower emissions, and an enhanced driver experience. But high-power electronics and the faster control rates of those components make it extremely difficult to validate. Hybrid electric vehicles in particular integrate two different powertrain technologies, which increases the complexity of testing. For example, the battery pack must be characterized over a wide variety of scenarios because the electrical charge and discharge characteristics are heavily dependent on temperature. In addition, the pack must operate safely within designed specifications to not impact other subsystems. To meet the same time-to-market deadlines driven by industry competition and government mandates, but with added test complexity, automakers must adopt flexible test systems with high mix I/O, higher frequencies and resolutions, and higher voltages and currents to test mechanical and power electronics components.

The growth of electric vehicles is also shaking up the automotive supply chain. OEM purchasing managers are looking for suppliers that can deliver more electric car parts. LG, a new player in the automotive supply chain, provides more than 50% of the parts for the Chevy Volt including the battery, nearly the entire powertrain, and connectivity and infotainment modules. Although mechanical components will remain important, they are quickly becoming commoditized. Traditional Tier 1 suppliers are innovating to stay differentiated.

As they incorporate new technologies to build specialized products, test departments are struggling to use the same personnel with the same equipment to meet new test requirements. Test managers can improve efficiency by supplementing existing test configurations with flexible, application specific tools that can be reconfigured dynamically, enabling a broader group of users to gain key insights for ad-hoc tests.

Are Cars the New Smartphones?

Gone are the days when cars served solely as a means to get from point A to point B. The way we buy and use personal vehicles is following an eerily similar progression to smart phones. Practical factors like fuel efficiency, performance, and price remain important table stakes. But infotainment, driver assistance, and connectivity (i.e., software and the driver's and passengers' experience of the car) are influencing the buying considerations of more and more consumers. Automakers are leveraging innovations from other industries to gain a competitive edge and meet rising customer demands for new capabilities. Active safety systems are using technologies from the aerospace/defense industry like radar, camera, and LiDAR in combination with a sensor fusion approach to give the vehicle a more complete view of the world around it. And the line between automotive and consumer electronics continues to blur as engineers incorporate feature-packed infotainment systems that include audio, video, RF and wireless, and in-vehicle communications.

Modern vehicles incorporate technologies from other industries including aerospace, energy, and mobile devices, which increases the complexity of testing. (Image source: National Instruments)

These technologies are constantly evolving, which adds a layer of complexity to the automotive development process. For example, there are two competing standards for V2X currently: IEEE 802.11p (aka DSRC) and LTE V2X. To remain competitive, automakers must be prepared to integrate both, which means validation test must be easily modified to the latest standard without significant cost or rework to the system. But multiple competing standards are not the only concern. Governments are trying to determine the best way to regulate autonomous vehicles and many regulations are still in development. To avoid being left behind by rapid innovation, an open testing platform with interoperability, I/O breadth, and synchronization is critical for future proof testing as new technologies and standards emerge.

What Now?

These trends are driving challenges across all phases of the automotive development process including the supply chain. Similar themes emerge over and over again, manifested in different ways. Rapidly evolving components and systems with radical new designs are increasing system complexity. Simultaneously, ever-changing regulations demand a higher volume of testing with accurate, traceable results. The rate of innovation also is outpacing the response of organizational budgets and test methodology, forcing test departments to do more with less.

The Flexlogger was created to help automotive test departments quickly capture accurate, well-documented data without programming. (Image source: National Instruments)

Test managers are being pulled in different directions, faced with the challenge of building increasingly complex, mixed measurement test systems under compressed timelines—all while managing the explosive growth of collected data. And it’s not just the automotive industry. These challenges are permeating adjacent industries including heavy equipment, aerospace, industrial appliances, and academic research. To overcome these challenges, engineers will need application specific tools to optimize the test workflow without sacrificing the ability to adapt.

Anjelica Warren is automotive product marketing manager for National Instruments.

Sources:

1IEA, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion Highlights 2013

2World Health Organization, Number of road traffic deaths

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