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Centralized Communication Through Zonal Architecture: A New Era for Next-Generation Vehicles

May 27, 2024

Imagine a bustling restaurant where every course has its own head chef. There would be chaos. While some cooks can specialize in certain courses or foods, there needs to be a well-defined and small leadership team in charge of the overall operation. The same is true in next-generation vehicles where multiple services and functions need to operate through a small number of vehicle computers.

Automotive Zonal Architecture is a fundamentally different approach that centralizes communication and consolidates ECUs and is finally coming into reality: “The zonal approach, where ECUs are classified according to their location in the vehicle, contains a centralized communication gateway and compute module sized to handle workloads from multiple ECUs within the vehicle.” 

With centralized communication, vehicles (and especially connected vehicles) need fewer ECUs as data is shared between a handful of HPCs (High-Performance Computers) that decide most, if not all, of the vehicle’s computing decisions. Having fewer HPCs and Zonal Gateways (ECUs that consolidate and manage information from sensors, actuators, and other edge devices) that manage communication means fewer integrations and verification work for automotive manufacturers and Tier 1s.

This allows the automotive manufacturer and system suppliers to have more resources to create services or apps for better driver and passenger experiences, instead of getting tied up with testing work. 

Centralized communication frees OEMs to focus more on differentiated services, delivering superior customer experiences, all while remaining compliant with regulations and legal demands. That is because much of the vehicle production process has traditionally been focused on hardware selection, sourcing, and integration.

The consolidation of communication provides several benefits, including a more streamlined hardware implementation and integration process, easier management of software and communication (software needs to run on fewer devices), leading to faster Time-to-Market for feature and updates, and ease of meeting regulations like the upcoming UNECE R155.  

However, consolidation does introduce several new challenges that require innovative solutions. 

One of the key concerns for vehicles using centralized communication is keeping up with security and safety needs. With multiple functions grouped into fewer ECUs, a compromised ECU can have a bigger impact on the vehicle’s safety and security. And with Zonal Architecture, even safety-critical functions ‘sit’ on the same ECUs as services that are more open to outside communication, like infotainment features. (Navigation, music, etc.)  Additionally, new methods of managing software are needed for complex software functions where the hardware resources are managed as a pool instead of tightly coupling software to specific underlying hardware computers. 

Enter GuardKnox’s Secure Gateway, a secure, seamless, fully configurable, and reliable gateway for vehicle data network management and application hosting. The Secure Gateway provides OEMs with the necessary evidence to show compliance with both UNECE R155 and GSR requirements. It supports routing and switching for Legacy Signals, Frames, and up to AUTOSAR L5 PDUs while using GuardKnox’s patented Communication Lockdown™ cybersecurity solution. This enables the automotive industry to adopt centralized communication and embrace the shift to Zonal Architecture, using powerful yet efficient gateways as the backbone for next-generation vehicles. 

The shift to next-generation vehicles relies on vehicle functions and data working on a consolidated number of ECUs to improve ease of software management and speed up Time to Market. Both are necessary for leading automotive manufacturers to offer customers a differentiated customer experience and deliver on the promise of Software-Defined Vehicles. 

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