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Zonal E/E Architecture

Conscious Uncoupling: It’s Time to Separate Hardware and Software

August 25, 2022
Today’s drivers do not want to think about the inner-workings of their vehicle, they just want the best driving and customer experience. They see themselves as the focal point, and are looking for a car that will offer them a fully-personalized customized experience each time they get behind the wheel. These drivers will not settle for second-best, and automakers must adapt.

Fortunately, new technologies are available, enabling carmakers to produce the software-defined vehicles (SDV) of the future. Driven by powerful software, these cars can meet the needs of the discerning consumer while also driving up profits for the automakers.

While software may be the key to the car of the future, this shift requires an all-out change in the car production process. Developing the software that can meaningfully change the vehicle to meet customer demands is a relatively simpler challenge, but implementing those capabilities into actual vehicles poses the greater hurdle. Currently, cars are built in such a way that each new feature requires its own ECU, which comes with its own complex wiring. Adding a new feature involves building and installing a new ECU, adding significant weight and complexity to a vehicle infrastructure that is already full. It also means re-wiring the entire car each time a new feature is added, creating an unrealistically long development cycle when there are likely to be ongoing upgrades and new features to introduce.

Moving from the traditional car-manufacturing methodology to zonal architecture will facilitate the shift to the SDV. Decoupling the software functionality from the physical hardware and equipping vehicles with a few central servers and a number of Zonal and Sub-zonal Gateways will result in the consolidation of the number of ECUs and the ability to relay large amounts of data through fewer high-speed ethernet links. In simple terms, this means that each vehicle will have several High-Powered Computers (HPCs) and then any number of software components and applications can be added and upgraded as needed, via the cloud.

What’s So Great About Zonal Architecture?

Cars are expensive and complex to build. Next-generation architecture (like Zonal) reduces the costs by streamlining the number of components and simplifying the development, testing, verification, and production process, resulting in the following benefits:

  • A simplified vehicle wiring harness means easier manufacturing and maintenance as well as faster integration tests for new features.
  • Fewer ECUs mean fewer chips, reducing the risk of delays caused by chip shortages.
  • Sensors and actuators will be independent of the central vehicle compute node, offering almost unlimited flexibility in the number and types of sensors and actuators that can be used.
  • All software updates and maintenance can be done over-the-air (OTA) eliminating the need for in-person visits to dealerships.
  • Optimized power distribution as well as the lower vehicle weight extends EV and ICE battery life and driving range by minimizing the power usage of unused modules.

Zonal architecture is a win-win for manufacturers and consumers alike. Drivers will get the personalized, convenient, seamless experience they crave, while OEMs will save on production costs, increasing their profit margins.

Zonal Architecture Whitepaper

What About Scalability?

Arguably the most important benefit of Zonal architecture is the scalability it affords to car manufacturers due to the reduced costs of materials and labor. The significant reduction in materials including microcontrollers, power supplies, housing, and copper wiring means less manpower is needed for installations - reducing costs and complexity. 

Once the software requirements are completely decoupled from the hardware, developers will have newfound agility in their development and integration processes. The development cycle will be quicker than ever, with the ability to create, test, and bring to market more new features faster, delighting customers with a wide array of innovative products and services.

All of those new features will be launched and updated OTA, reaching many customers all at once as opposed to requiring each one to make an appointment at a dealership or service center.

Zonal architecture opens up a whole new post-production market for OEMs who can offer an entire “app store” full of aftermarket features, products, and services that drivers can purchase on demand.


No Compromise on Security of Critical Functions

As with the introduction of any new technology, it is reasonable for OEMs to question whether the shift to zonal architecture might also introduce new security concerns. Making it easier and more efficient to offer better and faster entertainment and other non-critical functions is a no-brainer. Is there, however, reason to be concerned about zonal controllers and other consolidated components’ ability to manage critical functions such as steering control, brakes, and airbags?

The simple answer is no. Zonal architecture makes it easier for features to be built secure by design. Time-sensitive and safety-critical components can be kept separate from entertainment and other non-critical applications, ensuring protection against any physical or virtual attacks. Today’s reality requires being on constant alert against cyber attackers and the move to software-defined vehicles puts cars at the same risk as other tech-heavy industries.

In the same way that zonal architecture provides a solution for changing consumer demands, it also helps to addresses safety and security concerns.

So How Do We Get There?

Knowing that Zonal architecture is the key to the future of the software-defined vehicle does not mean that the shift can (or should) happen overnight. There are two main approaches being used to create SDVs today:

  • The Clean-Sheet Approach - this method is used by Tesla and other new-age carmakers, for example, and involves creating brand new hardware and software platforms from scratch, completely replacing existing platforms. 
  • The Retrofit Approach - used by legacy carmakers, this approach uses the existing vehicle architecture to derive a new hardware platform which is then paired with a simpler software platform that enables over-the-air updates.

The approach an OEM chooses is dependent on a number of factors including the capabilities they are trying to achieve as well as the amount of time, human and financial resources they have to dedicate to the project. The ultimate goal is for zonal architecture to be implemented at the full vehicle level rather than at the system level, which will enable SDVs to reach their full potential.

While the new OEMs entering the market can start out with next-gen or Zonal architecture, it is not as easy for existing OEMs to simply replace the legacy components with a brand new system all at once. For them, the transition to zonal architecture should be done in a staged process, choosing the features most vital to drivers to focus on first. In this way, challenges and concerns can be addressed along the way, ultimately resulting in a full-fledged SDV. For more information on how GuardKnox can help you along this journey, please contact us.


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