Automotive Electronics: the Nervous System of the Car

Bharath had an unplanned lunch meeting with the CTO Dr. Sharma. He was curious to know what was the media announcement that had caught Dr. Sharma’s attention. They were early for lunch. As the team brought out the various dishes starting with the vegetable soup, the canteen was filled with a mixed aroma of corn, spinach and broccoli in it. The aroma increased Bharath’s appetite. As they started eating, Dr. Sharma explained how intense the competition among automobile original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) has become to phase out the manufacturing of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and introduce electric vehicles (EVs).

Dr. Sharma (CTO) having a lunch conversation with Dr Bharath
Dr. Sharma (CTO) having a lunch conversation with Dr Bharath

Their key competitor had announced a timeline of 2025 to go totally the EV way. Bharath expected a call from the CEO’s office anytime enquiring on what should be their target timeframe. There would soon be media queries. The aggressive timelines would put additional pressure on Bharath, to not just start manufacturing small batches of EVs but also to scale up fast. Depending on their capability and supplier ecosystem, they should also come up with a reasonable timeline for phasing out their current cash cow, the tried and tested ICE vehicles. There could soon be regulatory pressure too. The European Union for example has announced stringent emission norms by 2025. These norms would make it challenging for ICE vehicles to match up to. Bharath realized that the time for developing EVs and bringing them to market is very short and he has to scale up his efforts quickly. He also realized that his success in this project will depend on his ability to boldly experiment with new technologies and take intelligent risks.

Bharath traces the evolution of Automotive Electronics

Bharath liked to give a historical perspective for engineering concepts before getting into contemporary ideas. He believed that young engineers should understand why and how a product is the way it is today and what forces, in the past, have shaped them. Computers in an automobile were first introduced in the late 1960s with an Electronic Control Unit or ECU. Volkswagen (VW) was one of the first OEMs to use an ECU for managing the engine. It was used to control fuel injection using Bosch’s Jetronic system. [1] It was a closed-loop system monitoring output such as the emission and fuel economy to decide critical parameters like the stoichiometric air-fuel ratio, valve timing and fuel consumption.

The electronic content in cars are increasing exponentially and are predominantly influenced by the industry megatrends of Connected, Autonomous, Shared & Electric. Bharath remembered the words of an automotive electronics expert Binoy Paul (whom he had met recently at a SAE conference on automotive electronics) - “Electrical and electronics systems are now one of the most critical part of a car. Its importance is simillar to the nervous system in a human body. When it comes to electric vehicles it is also the cardiovascular system as it supplies the energy!” The electronics hardware, vehicle architecture, software, development methodologies, design ownership are all going through a major upgrade [2].

Automotive computers have come a long way from the modest ECU in the 1968 VW, and their next generation will face complex requirements for fully self-driving vehicles. Ford introduced its first computer-controlled antiskid system in 1969, and General Motors (GM) announced a computer-controlled transmission in 1971. The demand for such systems increased, and GM, in partnership with Motorola, started to develop a custom microcomputer for its vehicles in 1976. Two years later, GM introduced a trip computer powered by a Motorola microprocessor in a Cadillac model. In 1981, all GM vehicles began using a Motorola 6802-based ECU for emissions control. Intel’s 8061 custom-designed automotive microcontroller chips started to be used in Ford vehicles in 1983. By 1987, the first automotive microcontroller chips, produced by Intel and Philips Semiconductors, for controller area network (CAN) vehicle-bus standards began to be used [3].

One of the most demanding electronic parts of an automobile is the Engine Control Unit. Engine controls demand one of the highest real-time deadlines, as the engine itself is a very fast and complex part of the automobile. Of all the electronics in any car, the computing power of the engine control unit is the highest. A modern car may have up to 100 ECU's. An engine ECU in a diesel engine controls such functions as fuel injection rate, emission control, NOx control, regeneration of oxidation catalytic converter, turbocharger control, cooling system control, throttle control etc. There are about 20 to 50 sensors that measure pressure, temperature, flow, engine speed, oxygen level and NOx level plus other parameters at different points within the engine. All these sensor signals are sent to the ECU, which has the logic circuits to do the actual controlling. The ECU output is connected to different actuators for the throttle valve, EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve, fuel injector, dosing injector and more - there are about 20 to 30 such actuators. Just like the ECU for engine electronics, there are units for transmission electronics, chassis electronics, passive safety, driver assistance, passenger comfort, infotainment systems, integrated cockpit systems etc. A typical car uses 50—150 semiconductor chips [4].

Automotive Electronics Trends – ECU consolidation
Automotive Electronics Trends – ECU consolidation

We will soon witness a major shift in vehicle E/E architecture. The architecture will change from one with numerous separate ECUs (~100 ECUs for complex vehicles) to a more streamlined architecture with a few central DCUs (Domain Control Units) covering one vehicle domain each, such as chassis or infotainment. DCUs consolidate the non-time-critical functionality of multiple ECUs and process data from multiple sources centrally. For example, in a traditional, non-DCU architecture, sensors such as cameras process captured data locally, and control actuators based on processing results. In a DCU-based E/E architecture, the data from multiple sensors such as cameras, radars, and LiDAR is processed centrally, e.g., for sensor fusion. Functionality that likely remains local, i.e., close to the sensor, is mainly related to the preprocessing of data to avoid congestion of the vehicle bus system. Also, latency-critical input/output functionality is expected to remain local [5]. The overall trend is a transition from a decentralized architecture (components connected by a central gateway in the 3rd generation of E/E architectures), in which functions are running on dedicated ECUs with high software-to-hardware integration, towards more centralized systems with dedicated domain controllers (4th generation). Finally, the architecture is expected to evolve into virtual domains (5th generation), in which one control unit runs functions or (micro-)services of different domains (e.g., infotainment and body control) [5].

Professor Murugan reiterates the importance of project management

One nagging thought in the mind of Prof. Murugan after Pavan’s eBaja prototype competition for electric cars was about project management. Although Murugan helped them to technically do a root cause analysis and apply a system thinking perspective to fix the issues that they faced, he felt there was another basic gap in their approach to make a prototype car. That was the lack of a professional project management. Instead of laying down all the activities required to complete the prototype and deciding which one needed how much time, they focused too much time on one task at the start - the vehicle structure design. There was no clarity on who will do which task. This led to a situation where there was not sufficient time for other downstream tasks.

Murugan called them to his room and explained them the importance of project management, especially in a crucial situation like the competition with a hard deadline. He first gave them a basic definition of what a project was, according to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a well-respected and professional organization in this field. Their PMP or Project Management Professional certification is quite popular. According to PMI, a project is a temporary endeavor that is undertaken to create a unique product, service or result, with a clearly defined start and end with defined scope and resources. For Pavan and team, it was making of the EV prototype for the eBaja event.

Any project can be broken down into a ‘work breakdown structure (WBS)’ or a logical list of activities, typically in a sequence, with some parallel tasks. When the team was working on the eBaja model and procuring various components, raw materials etc., they were breaking down the big project into a WBS. He then explained to them the importance of ‘critical path’, the list of activities that would take the most time to complete in the WBS. Any slippage in a critical path activity would end up impacting the overall project. The other non-critical activities had some slack and even if they took more time than what was planned, the project would not be impacted. For example, if they were delayed in developing the 3D model for the prototype, it would have directly impacted their raw material procurement and vehicle build. So, 3D modelling was a critical path activity. But then they had few things to add as aesthetics improvement to the overall vehicle. These could wait and had no direct impacts on the project completion. There should be clear allocation of work to team members with no ambiguity. Even in Pavan’s team, Sarthak was always working on simulations – he had the sole responsibility of all simulations. A RACI chart was quite popular in corporate organizations – to detail out who was responsible, accountable, consulted and to be informed for each important activity.

The two critical parameters to be measured in a project are the cost and schedule. Both are equally important. The critical path needs additional attention to ensure that the project sticks to its timelines. Resources should be used carefully consumed to ensure that the project cost is under control and within budget. The parameters to measure cost and schedule and CPI (Cost Performance Indicator) and SPI (Schedule Performance Indicator). CPI is the ratio of actual work completed or the earned value to the actual cost spent. SPI is the ratio of actual progress of the project or the earned value to the planned value. CPI and SPI should be greater than 1 for a project that is on track and performing better than expected.

After this discussion with Professor Murugan, Pavan and his friends got convinced that even in a small team, like the eBaja team, bringing role clarity resolves problems and accelerates the work progress. They decided to learn more about project management and apply it in their next project. They requested Prof. Murugan to further mentor them on how to balance Time – Cost – Scope, the typical project management triangle.Basically, the three constraints of time, cost and scope act as a boundary within which the project managers have to work and achieve success. Pavan understood that these triple constraints of project management are related to each other, which means affecting one will make a direct impact on others.

Project Management Triangle
Project Management Triangle

Kavya is surprised!

Pavan came out of Dr. Murugan’s room with many new learnings. He could never imagine Project Management can be so very critical in the overall success of even an engineering assignment. He always believed good technical knowledge is good enough to be successful in completing such projects. However, Pavan remembered Kavya was supposed to have a discussion with her Dean Dr. Rao in the first half. Pavan looked at his watch – it was 1pm already. The meeting must have already happened! He was not sure whether to give her a call or not. It will look bad if the phone rings and she is still in the meeting. So, he dropped her a WhatsApp message – “Done with the ‘critical’ meeting?” Hardly a second passed before the message got the double blue tick. Kavya called immediately. The meeting did not go as Kavya was expecting. Well, it went much better than that! Dr. Rao carefully listened to Kavya and to her surprise, he said he’s very proud of what Kavya is doing. He understood the intention of NEP and NISP policy and he agreed to the need for flexibility. He was initially worried that students take undue advantage of such flexibility. He wanted to make sure Kavya was really spending time on learning things. He was happy that Kavya took efforts in understanding the education policies. However, Dr. Rao mentioned that he is very particular about the final year project and he did not want Kavya to take it lightly either. Kavya expressed her concern to Pavan “How will I manage the final year project which has to be from my domain, Computer Science, while I am so very keen on Electric Vehicle projects!” They decided to call in the evening to discuss this further.

Pavan and Kavya discussing  about the Final Year Project (Video Chat)
Pavan and Kavya discussing about the Final Year Project (Video Chat)

Pavan proposed to merge the final year project requirement and Kavya’s interest – why not take up developing a module for electric vehicle that requires coding! Both Pavan and Kavya had no clue whether that was possible! What topic in IT/ Computer Science should she choose to contribute to EV development? and of course they both knew whom to talk to get more clarity on this!

Electric Mobility: To be continued...


All opinions and points-of-view expressed above are those of the authors and do not represent that of any other individual or organization.


  1. A backbone of Automotive Electronics, 50 years of Bosch gasoline injection Jetronic, Bosch

  2. NPTELTalk on Automotive Electronics – Technology Trends - Binoy Paul, January, 2021, NPTEL

  3. IEEE – Trends in Automotive Electronics, Joao P. Trovao, Nov 20, 2019, IEEE Vehicular Technology Magazine

  4. Automotive Electronics, Wikipedia

  5. Automotive Software and Electronics 2030, July 2019, McKinsey Report

  6. Project Management, NPTEL Online Certification

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Dr Shankar Venugopal | Ramachandran S | Sayantan Mukherjee

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