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Boost automotive electronics documentation, troubleshooting

Posted: 08 May 2012     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded software  automotive electronics  documentation 

When viewed vis-à-vis the development of visionary new automotive electronic systems, such as intelligent highways and driverless cars, documenting designs and repairing faulty vehicles seem unglamorous. In fact, though, documentation of vehicle electrical systems is a slow, costly and error-prone task; and speeding fault rectification saves money, reduces commercial vehicle downtime, and enhances brand image in the eyes of the customer. So, actually these unglamorous activities have rather important commercial impact. This article examines a new technology to improve the process of both documentation and troubleshooting.

So what's the problem?
We all recognise that vehicle electrical systems have become very complex over the past decade or two, driven by the huge growth in vehicle electronics, including embedded software. The vehicle's electrical system distributes power and signals around the vehicle, acting much like the central nervous system of the human body. As the number of electronic systems has grown, so has the number of signals and hence the complexity of the nervous system. For regulatory reasons this nervous system must be accurately documented, usually via schematic diagrams, wiring lists, location views, and the like. Indeed, creation of complete documentation can be on the critical path for shipping a new vehicle.

It might be possible to keep up with the growth in electrical system content by adding documentation staff. But actually the challenge is more difficult than it initially appears for two reasons. First, electrical systems suffer a very high rate of change as designs are improved, new features added, components upgraded, and so forth. Second, multiple options offered to the public generate a huge variety of possible electrical configurations, each of which must be documented.

Without substantial automation it becomes either very costly or downright impossible to create and maintain correct documentation. This in turn can lead to legal risks: For example, what happens if an accident occurs because a vehicle has been incorrectly serviced due to out-of-date documentation?

But the task goes beyond solving the documentation creation challenge. Unfortunately, vehicle electrical systems can be unreliable: Fuses blow, terminals become corroded, grounding studs fail, etc. Although fault diagnostic systems continue to improve, in a noticeable proportion of cases, fault identification is down to a human technician—pouring over that documentation. With system complexity high and configuration complexity even higher, the unfortunate technician needs some help.

The business issue
Automotive service organisations (i.e. dealers) are normally franchised networks. Speedy fault identification is important to their profitability, so they will pressure vehicle OEMs to provide a very efficient environment for their technicians.

Perhaps more important is the experience for the end customer. Few things are more frustrating than a long wait for a vehicle to be fixed, except perhaps a return visit to the garage because the original repair did not cure the problem. This in turn impacts brand image, a subject of vital importance in the competitive automotive market. And for commercial vehicles such as heavy trucks, delivery vans, and taxis, excessive downtime has a very direct revenue impact.

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