Automotive service in the era of the electronic car

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

The automotive electronic revolution has given us vehicles brimming with impressive features, and this is only the beginning. One component that should not be overlooked in this transformation is automotive servicing, crucial to the overall ownership experience.

Rapid, effective service is a critical business factor for the entire automotive industry. But servicing a modern car today calls on complex, interconnected computer system diagnosis, given the pervasive nature of electronics in the latest machines. So how do we enable mechanics under enormous time pressure to identify and repair problems in a more rapid and secure way?

The modern vehicle, regardless of cost, contains a plethora of electronic systems, as shown in Figure 1. Some of these are obvious, such as radar, entertainment, and navigation. However, most are not visible to the driver, but are essential to the vehicle’s basic operation.

Figure 1: Electronic Components in a Modern Vehicle

A vehicle in 2018 typically contains 100-300 micro-controllers or processors, 50+ complex electronic control units, between 5 and 20 million lines of software code, with miles of wires connecting these systems. These systems often interact. For example, the steering system interfaces with the suspension to ensure a smooth ride.

A fault in one car component might be caused by a different system. These problems may manifest themselves as intermittent, hard-to-track electronic signals, rather than as a more obvious, worn out mechanical part. As such, diagnosis is a complex task.

To compound this challenge, next-generation cars will contain autonomous driving modes and other powerful systems that represent the very latest state-of-the-art in computer science. Furthermore, these systems must adhere to rigorous safety standards, such as ISO 26262. Automotive electronics are set to become increasingly  complex and sophisticated.

So what does this mean for automotive maintenance? The user experience starts with the purchase and continues throughout the life of the vehicle as customers return to their service centers for maintenance and repair. During the last two or three decades, electronics have taken over as the key technology in the car. This has transformed service technicians into electronic diagnosis experts, and they must carry out electronic servicing faster than ever.

Enabling mechanics to identify and reliably repair problems quickly is a key element of the automotive value proposition. However, an oil soaked mechanic working under the hood of a car is a thing of the past. Today’s service centers employ highly skilled engineers, along with groups of electronic technicians with computer expertise to run diagnostic routines.

The modern car has diagnostic systems that interface with service computers to detect potential future and existing problems. Although these are helpful in initial diagnosis, more detection work is often required and, for this, technicians must refer to service manuals, available either online or as extensive printed documents.

These manuals, created by large documentation teams, are particular to each car type and its many variants. Authoring these documents is a slow and error-prone process, sometimes resulting in unwieldy service manuals that have to be searched by the service technicians to track down possible issues. New online manuals have helped, although they are still static in nature and cannot keep up with advancing automotive technology.  

A new technology, borrowed from the semiconductor electronic design automation industry, holds the promise of a better approach to traditional service manuals. The easiest way to imagine this is to consider the way we use online and mobile GPS map programs to navigate our way around.

When trying to choose a route to a specific location, we all remember using paper maps, searching through them, finding the location itself, then the ideal route to get there. The modern “Google Maps” approach, where start and final locations are entered and a map is created that focuses on the area of interest, providing data on the locations as well as road changes, together with ideal routes to get there quickly, accounting for traffic conditions, is both faster and more accurate. The map database can be updated to take changes to the roads into account, and the display is easy to understand and use.

This model is exactly what is required by the service centers, as they chart their course through the maze of complex electronic components and interconnects. Semiconductors contain millions of transistors and connections, which has driven the development of reactive debug visualization technology by, in this case, Concept Engineering. This technology (E-engine™) is now being applied to service schematic diagrams with the following results:

  1. An easy-to-read, visual display that dynamically focuses on the exact problem area, based on diagnostic codes (Diagnostic Trouble Codes, DTC) or manual input.
  2. A schematic diagram that changes to depict the exact version and variant of the specific vehicle under inspection, eliminating unnecessary clutter
  3. An online (PC or tablet) display that scales and adjusts itself, and allows additional information about components, wiring, etc. to be revealed interactively.
  4. A direct link from the developers’ CAD drawings to the schematic database to avoid translation errors and accelerate authoring.

This is how this solution works: The original CAD drawings of the electrical and electronic system for a particular car brand is automatically converted from industry standard formats such as KBL, as well as company proprietary formats,  into the E-engine database format known as EDB. The EDB database may also contain component detail and other information useful to service centers. It also allows for variant data to be specified, and may be updated easily without being completely reproduced as revisions are made to the vehicle’s specification.

This database is available from the car manufacturer’s cloud-based server to all of its service centers. A service center may access this information via a web browser, eliminating the installation of local apps on their computers. During mobile operation on the road, for example, the system can also operate offline using previously loaded data. A technician calls up a specific service schematic diagram based on the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and then using either the relevant Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTC) or alternatively based on component, location or part information, focuses the display on a specific area. Detail of components, wiring, and other information may be dialed up for exact analysis of problem scenarios, see figure 2.

Figure 2: Schematic on Tablet Web Browser with Wire Detail

Manufacturers needing to shave minutes off automotive service times recognize the dramatic benefits provided by this approach. The possibility of customizing this technology for individual manufacturing processes and policies, as well as maintaining and updating vehicle data to all service centers immediately, is very attractive. The automated production of accurate, informative and reliable documentation quickly and easily can simplify their development processes.

This solution is new on the market, but has already attracted the interest of large automotive manufacturers. It has been adopted by a large truck manufacturer, as well as by companies in other industries, such as aerospace. This is a sign of the times for automotive service centers and is sure to make its way into many service bays soon.

About the author:

Gerhard Angst is President & CEO, Concept Engineering GmbH


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