The modern automobile is much more than a wheeled contrivance; it is a moving computer. The quantum of electronics going into the manufacture of a car — already mind-boggling — is growing by the day.

The Nissan Renault Alliance’s technology centre near Chennai employs 4-5 times more than the massive car factory located in the same region. The centre serves Nissan worldwide. At a recent media interaction in Chennai, the CEO of French car maker Renault Group, Luca De Meo, spoke highly of the group’s software teams in India that are working on stuff like connectivity, autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, cloud and augmented reality.

Though the US carmaker Ford had shut down its car manufacturing operations in India, it still employs about 10,000 software folk in its IT operations in Tamil Nadu to support its global car development programmes. Almost every car OEM has set up tech centres and employs a significant number of people in software.

While the software component of a car is a huge value-addition, there is a lot more coming.

Imagine a car with components that are controlled from a central supercomputing platform instead of dozens of intricately interconnected computer systems — one could easily install updates via Wi-Fi without going to a mechanic and integrate new functions as and when needed.

This is the vision that the Dresden (Germany)-based Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems IPMS and some partners from the automotive industry are working towards, as part of a joint research project — CeCaS (Central Car Server – Supercomputing for Automotive). Researchers from these organisations are working on a systems architecture based on the idea of managing all electronic components centrally from one computer platform. The goal is to remodel the computer architecture used in cars from the ground up to create a centrally managed system from one computer platform. The idea is to turn cars into supercomputers on wheels, where the components can communicate with each other in real-time.

“The German federal government is supporting the project as part of its initiative for funding research on electronics and software development methods for the digitalisation of automobility. Fraunhofer researchers are focusing on Time-Sensitive Networking for their project and the team is developing its tried-and-tested functional blocks for semiconductors, called IP cores. The idea is to equip the Ethernet-based network technology with real-time capabilities while making it robust and extremely reliable in all situations. TSN achieves this combination of real-time capability and reliability through means such as using a consistent system time for all relevant control devices, using a smart system for managing process queues, and prioritising tasks,” said Dr Frank Deicke, head of Data Communication and Computing of Fraunhofer Institute.

The computer architecture being developed in the CeCaS project for the car of the future represents a radical departure from current construction methods: from domain-based control of components to zone-based management, where just a few high-performance computing platforms control many modules simultaneously. These include safety-critical systems such as the engine, gearbox, and brakes as well as dash cams, parking aids, temperature and proximity sensors, motors for electric windows and seat adjusters, air conditioning, and on-board entertainment systems.

The new architecture will also make it possible to update cars without taking them to a mechanic. The cars will be updated via wi-fi, almost like a laptop or desktop PC. The centrally controlled system will also require a narrower cable harness, which will reduce the amount of materials used in manufacturing, and thus lower costs — and make the car significantly lighter overall.