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What does automation mean for specialist EV designers?

29th August 2019

The internal workings of an EV are complex. Unlike their petrol-powered ancestors, EVs function largely thanks to electronic control units (ECUs); which are responsible for overseeing, regulating and altering the operation of a car’s electronic systems.

Over the years, the number of ECUs has continually increased, ranging between 70 and 100 ECUs per car. Specialist EVs will tend to have more electronic systems due to having greater requirements; such as emergency response, civic duties or haulage requirements.

Inside today’s specialist electric vehicles, ECUs operate an array electronic systems; such as integrated safety units, pedestrian detection software, lane departure, and electrified axle solutions.

This is, however, just the tip of the electo-berg. Specialist EVs might also feature additional systems; such as built-in fleet management tools, remote operation, infotainment systems, camera systems, and engine management systems.

Automation will lead to increased features

As more advanced machines come into production, vehicles will contain an even greater number of interconnected systems. With increased automation, more features are being introduced into vehicle architectures’; features that are software-based, and data-driven.

An ever-higher number of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and comfort functions, for example, will be introduced; all of which rely on sensor data to operate.

Adaptive body height control, for example, uses lateral motion sensors to detect imminent side collision. The sensors then work in tandem with the car’s suspension system, using position sensors to increase the car’s body height by 10cm or more. This exposes a more robust part of the chassis to the impact zone, limiting harm to the car and its passengers.

Vehicles will also utilise RADAR, LIDAR, and cameras to detect the outside environment. This not only means greater volumes and faster data flows within the vehicle, but it also means more data will be entering from outside the car via wireless and cellular technologies.

Not only this, but data will perform remote diagnostics, preventive maintenance, and updates—much of which will be performed via over-the-air (OTA) software updates.

All these features will hugely increase the amount of data and the need to add greater connectivity within the car. From an engineering perspective, the inclusion of so many systems and even wireless technologies makes the manufacture of SEVs more complex than ‘lots of moving parts’.

Hardware issues?

Where communication between internal ECUs happens ‘over-the-air’ through sensor technologies, internal components need to be integrated with technical precision and ingenuity.

It is also paramount that engineers design in lightweight electrical parts, to offset the weight of heavy internal components such as the battery. While some of the sensors and other communication parts might be smaller than you average electrical components; such as inverters, contactors and cables; they will need to be housed and packaged to protect them from damage and EMI, increasing weight.

Optimising packaging solutions to save weight is crucial, the design might also need to be versatile to atypical vehicle layouts; exemplified by specialist vehicles such as road sweepers and on-site vehicles.

No matter how nifty your specialist EV design, electrical systems and parts also need to be tough to the demands of specialist vehicles. This might mean internal systems need to feature properties such as high vibrational resistance, waterproofing or chemical resistance.

To achieve this, it is important to integrate systems that were developed with both the software and hardware in mind. It’s no use integrating cutting-edge driver assistance systems that will fail the moment your vehicle is subject to a change in conditions.

One thing is for certain, as Specialist EVs become more advanced, the cost and skill level necessary to manufacture production-ready specialist electric vehicles will be greater; which means projects will take longer, more skills and outsourced knowledge will be required, and budgets will be squeezed.

Regardless, regulation is coming down harder on carbon-emitting vehicles year-on-year, for engineers to adapt efficiently they need to be aware of challenges early on in the design process; this way they can best mitigate any issues further down the road.

As the specialist electric vehicle market speeds towards greater automation, the very nature of vehicle design is adapting. For engineers looking to stay ahead of the industry, keeping up-to-date with the latest in EV sensor and component technology is vital.