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Connected Vehicles

The Future of Connected Vehicles: The Rise of Zonal Architecture and the Challenges Ahead

April 24, 2023

The automotive industry is in the midst of a revolution with the ultimate goal being safe, secure, personalized, and more connected vehicles. Technology is developing quickly and OEMs are under pressure to keep up, yet it is challenging to replace legacy methods and systems that have been in place for decades, in some cases. For example, the rise of connected and next-generation software-defined vehicles (SDVs) brings with it a whole new layer of complexity and computing requirements that OEMs haven’t had to address until now.

One new capability OEMs are searching for is a more flexible software management approach. The key to this flexibility is a shift from traditionally distributed architecture - in which ECUs are located throughout the vehicle and do not communicate with each other - towards a Zonal Architecture. With Zonal Architecture, computing capacities are grouped together physically, consolidating resources and decreasing the amount of wiring needed. 

It is expected that most OEMs will make the move to Zonal Architecture by 2026, but to get there successfully, there are 4 main challenges they need to overcome. 

Challenge #1: High Latencies

The complex systems needed to run a vehicle safely and efficiently require very low latency. While zonal controllers offer many benefits, they do add additional ‘hops’ as messages need to move through more ECUs which are problematic for functions critical timing (i.e. ADAS). As described by the Global Vice President of a Volume OEM, “ADAS and Zonal Architecture - that will be difficult. I have no idea how they want to solve the latency issue.” 

Traditional Ethernet switches are not strong enough to support the huge amount of data that must pass through a large number of interfaces. What’s needed is a solution that can support multi-gigabit traffic and a variety of communication interfaces while still allowing for low latency. 

Challenge #2: High Costs in Vehicle Development

While Zonal Architecture simplifies and consolidates the car’s wiring, it’s unlikely that OEMs will be able to implement zonal throughout the entire vehicle at once. For example, a car may be built using zonal architecture for all domains except ADAS. In that case, ADAS will still require additional wiring and connectors on top of what’s needed to set up the zonal system, adding to the cost.  
In addition, as vehicles evolved over the years and new systems were introduced, there hasn’t been any real consistency among the protocols used for the systems to communicate. With a range of protocols in use in one vehicle, such as CAN, LIN, CAN-BUS, AUTOSAR PDU, Ethernet and more, additional engineering efforts are needed to make them compliant and able to communicate with each other. The cost of these extra engineering hours can add up, especially the longer it takes. According to one Vehicle Networking Engineer at a Volume OEM, “It took us more than half a year to get the different routing solutions in the different domains to work with each other - and I am not even talking about the higher-level protocols like SOME/IP.”

Challenge #3: Performance vs. Security

Security will always be a top priority for the automotive industry. According to a Research Engineer of Automotive Electronics at a Volume OEM: “The need for automotive safety is all over the place and needs to be accounted for - from the ground up starting with the MVP.” The challenge is that securing the automotive networking system comes at the expense of overall routing performance. 

In order to provide a fully secure solution, each communication packet must be verified,  to the overall processing time. Because of this, the solution must include routing technology that can complete Bit-level and real-time deep-packet inspection. 

Challenge #4: Lack of Flexibility 

The shift to Zonal Architecture isn’t going to happen overnight. There will be changes along the way that demand flexibility in the hardware and software being used. For example, as various vehicle parts are upgraded and updated, different ports will be necessary. Limited flexibility will mean long and complex redevelopment processes every time a change is needed. 

Utilizing FPGA microchips at the outset with a later shift to ASIC microchips is a great way to overcome this challenge. This method was used successfully by John Deere as described by the Current Regional Distribution Manager, IDM: “FPGAs are just right for the start. That's what John Deere did as well when developing its latest generation of intelligent agricultural machinery before moving to own ASICs.”

How to Overcome These Challenges

There are several options available to address the challenges that are currently holding OEMs back from implementing Zonal Architecture including ethernet switches, network processors, and hardware. 

Ethernet Switches

Ethernet switches offer high throughput with low latency and are very cheap, so they might sound like the perfect solution. However, Ethernet is not always compatible with the legacy CAN and LIN protocols that still prevail in many vehicles. 

Network Processors

Network processors are devices designed for fast protocol processing. While they are often used for routers and other networking appliances, they tend to work best for layer 2 and 3 functionality. Automotive software, however, requires routing at layer 5. In addition, network processors are non-pipelined systems which mean in certain situations they can exhibit non-deterministic timing behavior. The only way to solve this problem is with very costly multi-core network processors.


The downsides of Ethernet and network processors leave just one option - a hardware-based routing/switching solution. GuardKnox’s CommEngine™ is the fast, single-chip, automotive routing/switching solution that addresses the three challenges described above in a cost-effective way. The CommEngine™ is available as a highly integrated IP Core and can be implemented as either an FPGA or ASIC solution. This solution guarantees high throughput with very low latency and deterministic switching/routing performance allowing for maximum flexibility. 

zonal architecture white paper

The Benefits of the CommEngine™

When routing/switching is performed in software, resources are shared with other tasks because the software is running on different cores on general-purpose hardware. When routing/switching is performed on dedicated hardware, on the other hand, it is not shared with other tasks resulting in low, deterministic latencies by design. 

The CommEngine™ offers the following benefits:

Benefit #1: Low Latency

CommEngine™’s hardware-only implementation allows for fast and secure switching and routing tasks even under high communication loads. Latency is reduced by a factor of up to 10x when compared to software approaches. With CommEngine™, even functionality with very low latency requirements - such as ADAS sensors - can be routed via zonal gateways. 

Benefit #2: Cost Reductions

By integrating computing and routing tasks onto one single chip, there are direct and indirect cost benefits. The production and packaging costs are significantly lower due to the smaller size of the chip. The move to Zonal Architecture itself which is enabled by the CommEngine™ ultimately results in cost benefits due to the reduced amount of wiring and reduction of harness costs.

Benefit #3: High Security and High-Performance

CommEngine™ uses cryptographic algorithms and bit-level packet inspection built into the hardware. This means that it is secure by design without compromising on performance capabilities. 

Benefit #4: Highly Flexible

CommEngine™ offers FGPA implementation which is easily tailored and adapted to the needs of the OEM even as they change and evolve with no need for long and complex new redevelopments. Once the requirements have stabilized, there is an easy transition to an ASIC solution. 

Overall, the CommEngine™ is an essential tool to ease OEM’s transition to Zonal Architecture. It guarantees a high throughput including deterministic low latency and switching/routing performance with high functional flexibility in a cost-effective manner. Click here for more information or contact us to request a demo.


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