How a 40-year-old technology will shape the future of the connected car: Automotive Ethernet

SECURE-CONNECTED-VEHICLE-BANNERThe modern car has become not just a marvel of modern mechanical engineering, but also software and electronic innovation. A high-end car now features close to 100 million lines of code and relies on a highly refined system of electronics, incorporating everything from an infotainment system to electronic control units (ECUs) and sensors that provide real-time feedback.

Supporting all of these systems is a car’s in vehicle network (IVN), which allows data to flow freely between different components. The right IVN is crucial for systems to function cohesively, and requires the right combination of scalability, flexibility and performance to meet the rigorous demands of today’s cars. In the past few years, one approach that is steadily winning the automotive industry over is a specialized version of Ethernet purpose-built for cars, loosely based on the Ethernet technology that was first introduced 40 years ago as a networking solution for computers.

As the number of electronic systems increase and cars become closer to full autonomy, they need to gather, process, and respond to enormous amounts of data at extremely fast speeds. While you can tolerate a few seconds delay when browsing the web, that same delay for a car could make all the difference in avoiding an accident.

Simply put, data bandwidth is, for the time being a major barrier to autonomous driving. For self-driving cars to become a reality, designers need to find a way to manage all the data and processing required to support autonomy.

The first step towards solving the bandwidth issue boils down to finding the right IVN. If the ECUs and other electronic components make up a cars “brain” and the chassis makes up the “body”, think of the IVN as the “spine”, acting as a central nervous system that sends signals between the various components of a car to support functions like Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS).

ADAS gives us our first glimpse at what autonomous driving could be like in the future, where a car can use various systems to monitor its surrounding environment and react accordingly. For an ADAS system to work, it makes heavy use of cameras, radar and other sensor systems, which can easily strain the data capacity of some existing IVNs and other electronics systems, like the onboard infotainment system, add their own bandwidth challenges.

As we look to the future of autonomous IVNs, automotive Ethernet offers the right combination of flexibility, scalability, performance, and simplified structure necessary to support the next-generation of connected cars.

In its current form, it offers several benefits over competing standards:

  • Standard protocols & established ecosystem: One of the greatest advantages to Ethernet is that it already has an established ecosystem, ensuring automotive manufacturers can easily partner with experts and outsource development tasks while reducing risks. Because automotive Ethernet also adheres to certain standards, automakers can easily upgrade bandwidth just by swapping out the physical component layer. This makes it easy to scale production from entry level to high end, using a single network architecture that can evolve overtime.
  • Vehicle-friendly cabling & performance: One of the biggest issues for standard Ethernet cables is they’re too bulky to easily be used in cars. Automotive Ethernet on the other hand is better designed for the needs of cars, created to meet certain temperature and length requirements necessary for IVNs.
  • A roadmap to faster networking: 100 Megabits (Mbit/s) is only the beginning for automotive Ethernet (100BASE-T1). In the future, the goal is to provide a roadmap for increasingly sophisticated applications that require higher bandwidth, while eliminating any potential interoperability issues between 100 Mbit/s and 1 Gigabit (Gbit) versions. Reaching 1 Gbit/s would be a boon for automotive manufactures, allowing them to move less or even uncompressed sensor data into a central fusion box that would make object detection much easier.

Autonomous vehicles offers many benefits for consumers, such as reducing traffic congestion and easing the environmental impact of driving, but what’s paramount is safety. Without a solution that lets data flow freely, this technology may never see mainstream adoption. Fortunately, automotive Ethernet has given manufacturers a path to bringing these innovations to consumers and as the technology continues to grow in popularity, we can be sure the cars of tomorrow are well-equipped to deal with any situation on the road.

Günter Sporer is managing NXP’s Automotive Ethernet business and strategy. He has more than 20 years of experience working in the semiconductor and automotive market.