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Harnessing the Potential of Zonal Architectures to Build Next-Gen Vehicles

Aug. 4, 2022
Looking for ways to shrink weight and cost, as well as simplify connectivity, in next-gen automotive designs, engineers are turning to zonal architectures.

What you'll learn:

  • In what ways do zonal architectures improve EV designs, especially with the explosion in the use of ECUs?
  • The ever-more critical role of connectors.
  • Why collaborations within industry have become increasingly important for success.

As automakers focus on making vehicles faster, lighter, and electric, they also must grapple with why automotive electronics/electrical systems are still connected by hand—as it’s been done for the past 75 or more years. The undeniable shift to electric vehicles (EVs) is so much more sweeping than simply swapping familiar gas-guzzling engines for massive battery packs.

New mindsets, methodologies, and manufacturing methods must emerge to accelerate the EV transition while transforming how automotive engineers think, design, and make next-generation cars. Indeed, the path forged by Tesla represents a revolution in car design as well as the evolution of software-defined vehicles developed and built around a centralized computer architecture.

While the exteriors of all types of vehicles are changing radically, on the inside, the evolution is lagging. Nowhere is this more apparent—or important—than a vehicle’s “central nervous system,” the wiring that’s essential for connecting the growing number of new features and electronics to improve safety, operations, and passenger comforts.

Due to resistance and reluctance to discard the legacy ways of manufacturing, vehicle makers have typically been addressing the new requirements by tacking on additional electronic control units (ECUs) to their existing wiring schemes.

Novel Thinking Drives Innovation

Earlier this year, Molex and Mouser commissioned a global automotive survey, “The Data Center on Wheels,“ to examine the biggest impacts and obstacles impeding the deployment of advanced vehicle architectures. According to 45% of the survey participants, in-car connectivity has had the most impact on vehicle architectures and driving experiences over the past five years, followed by data-storage systems (43%) and cloud computing (43%).

One of the best ways to think about the role of connectivity in next-generation vehicles is to envision all of the wires and cables that are needed to link an ever-increasing cadre of electronics. While electrification has set the stage for the shift to a different vehicle architecture, a major impetus is autonomous driving. It will dramatically increase the amount and type of electronics, encompassing all of the cameras, sensors, radar, and LiDAR needed to support rising levels of functionality.

In traditional vehicle architectures, connectors attach an ever-growing number of ECUs to wiring schemes and cabling harnesses. As a result, today’s vehicles might contain up to 150 ECUs, with enough additional cables to make any wiring harness look like a centipede with octopus tentacles. Not only have these harnesses become among the most complicated components in vehicle manufacturing, they continue to add significant weight and complexity.

As automotive designers add more functionality to vehicles, each ECU grows, despite demands to consolidate printed-circuit-board (PCB) space. This also leads to greater production costs and potential points of failure, all of which can have serious impacts on quality.

Typical harnesses may include 700 or so connectors, and it only takes one bad connector to create performance and reliability problems for the entire harness. That’s why so much testing must be done during assembly. Inspections must occur every step of the way because the worst scenario is to get to the end and recognize a connectivity problem lurks somewhere in the wiring harness.

Adding to this burden is the fact that wiring harnesses, with their miles of wiring and hundreds of connectors, are assembled manually. Not only does this pose further risks of increased warranty claims, it slows production considerably. According to 57% of those polled in Molex’s recent survey, technology-related manufacturing issues were among the biggest impediments that must be overcome to achieve next-generation vehicle architectures.

While consumers demand vehicle interiors and infotainment systems that perform like home theaters on wheels, the answer can’t be sustained by continuing to add more ECUs, as automakers already are experiencing space constraints. And this is only the harbinger of what’s needed to achieve level 4 autonomous driving, which 81% of the respondents to the Molex-Mouser survey believe will occur within the next 10 years.

New Architectures for Next-Gen Vehicles

Cars of the future will feature interconnected architectures that function as smart nodes of dynamic, intelligent networks. Such networks would share real-time information with pedestrians (V2P), infrastructure (V2I), and other vehicles (V2V) to deliver on the promise of vehicle-to-everything (V2E) communications. The biggest challenge for today’s automotive engineers is determining how to facilitate incremental changes across a sector that’s long recognized for resistance to new ways of thinking and reluctance to disrupt legacy approaches to design and manufacturing.

Automotive design engineers who embrace new vehicle architectures will be best positioned to produce vehicles that deliver enhanced driver experiences. Not only will they make it easier and more economical to add sensors, multiple cameras, radar, LiDAR, and other technologies, next-gen architectures can support data-speed increases up to 10 Gb/s and power requirements reaching 48 V—all of which simplify adding more hardware, firmware, and software.

As a result, most automakers already have begun moving away from flat wiring architectures to approaches where vehicle infrastructure is grouped by specific functions, such as powertrain, safety systems, infotainment, etc.

In a domain architecture, each grouped, functional area has its own dedicated controller, which then connects with other controllers using a gateway to communicate and manage functionality across the in-vehicle network. While domain-based architectures represent an incremental step in the right direction, they don’t reduce the proliferation of cable sufficiently enough to decrease weight and expense from the car-building process.

The Zonal Effect

Zonal architectures differ from domain counterparts because they reduce the number of wires as well as the distance data and power cables must travel to connect to local gateways serving as processing hubs and power-distribution modules. Instead, automotive functions are grouped by location to reduce complexity, cabling, and cost (Fig. 1).

Throughout the car, zones are linked to local gateways that are in proximity to the respective devices they control. Therefore, cabling lengths are comparatively short and lighter than other architectural designs. Each zonal gateway is connected to a central computing cluster, enabling the vehicle’s architecture to function more like a computer network than a traditional wiring harness.

Not only does zonal architecture reduce the number of wires, but it will dramatically decrease the number of ECUs in the vehicle, which shrinks wire length, weight, and cost.

Of note is the opportunity to reduce the amount of copper cables. While such cabling plays an important role in vehicle performance, it adds substantial weight, which can impact efficiency and the range electric vehicles can travel.

With a zonal approach, functionality is addressed in a modular fashion, which eliminates the need for wiring harnesses that run the entire length of the vehicle. Instead, a few high-speed network communications links, including a small number of twisted pairs, can provide the redundancy to assure high uptime of links connecting zonal gateways and the centralized computing cluster (Fig. 2).

The case for adopting zonal architecture is undeniable, even if just dwelling on all the things that can—and will—go wrong when accommodating a plethora of connections, complex software, and constant demands to decrease overall weight.

Still, the technology isn’t without challenges, especially given the automotive industry’s demand for rigorous performance in the most demanding environments. Electrification, autonomous driving, and an ever-increasing reliance on infotainment place inordinate pressure on designers to match increasing data rates with requirements for zero downtime.

Cross-Industry Collaborations Count

Automotive designers developing the next generation of cars must prioritize the role of connectors, as they’re essential to the acceptance of zonal architectures. Existing offerings can’t meet the demands, so a new generation of hybrid or mixed connectors are needed to handle the power and high-speed signals associated with tomorrow’s EVs. Moving from sealed to unsealed connectors also can yield significant cost, weight, and size savings, if the connectors can deliver reliable performance in the harshest of environments.

Embracing zonal architecture also can offer a shortcut to implementing the latest advances in high-speed communications and computing power—both are must-haves for dealing with the massive amount of data that goes with next-gen vehicles. However, greater functionality can impact the size of ECUs at a time when designers are striving to pack as much capability into precious PCB space as possible.

The ability to protect and maximize PCB efficiency will prove instrumental in determining the leaders—as well as the followers—in speeding the development and delivery of next-gen vehicles. That’s why it’s crucial for design teams to leverage learnings from adjacent industries, including consumer electronics and high-speed networking.

The opportunity to align leading-edge technologies from other industries and apply them to next-gen vehicle architectures will offer more seamless alignment between electrification, high-speed networking, and miniaturization. More powerful, ruggedized connectors sporting additional functionality also will improve harness installations because they will require fewer connection points yet enhance performance durability.

Moreover, a blend of Silicon-Valley entrepreneurial thinking and Detroit no-nonsense pragmaticism offers a nice balance between the potential and reality of evolving solutions. Each major automotive region is approaching the future from slightly different perspectives.

However, it’s important to realize that the EV startups came into the market without legacy products and preconceived notions of how the industry should operate. Chinese automakers have moved with great speed and agility based on existing car designs. For traditional automakers to make up lost ground, they will need to react quickly and decisively.

Automakers that partner with traditional electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies can pivot quickly while benefiting from EMS time-tested strengths in industrialization and automation. In fact, more than half (57%) of the industry shareholders polled in the Molex-Mouser The Data Center on Wheels survey believe that technology issues with manufacturing are one of the largest impediments to achieving next-generation vehicle architecture.

There’s an opportunity to develop more automated production and assembly lines to produce tomorrow’s wiring architectures. Making harnesses more rigid yet still flexible enough to remain friendly in an assembly environment is the goal, but that will take time. Industry alliances, such as ARENA2036, are bringing together titans of the automotive industry with leading automation and manufacturing experts to devise the technology transfer and best practices needed to design and manufacture the vehicle of the future.

Investing in new ways to simplify wiring harness designs and manufacturing will pay off in terms of quality, reliability, and cost improvements. Arguably, it might take a year or two for real progress to become evident, but in five to 10 years, the automotive technology landscape will look radically different than today. Remember, a backup camera was a big deal five years ago; now it’s table stakes. The pace of innovation is accelerating.

Summary

The automotive industry’s unprecedented shift to EVs has resulted in a “Cannonball Run”-like competition to develop connected and autonomous mobility solutions. As such, zonal architecture is the most expedient path to permitting major advances outside the car. In addition, zonal is poised to speed transformations inside the cabin, such as voice recognition, advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), cybersecurity, and infotainment.

 The ability to develop and deploy a strategic plan for interconnectivity must encompass new wiring innovations, such as zonal architecture, to combine crucial hardware, software, and firmware that enable advanced features and functionality. It’s not really a question of “if” but “when,” and there’s no time like the present to get started on this path to the future.

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