- Published in Features.
Not so long ago, luxury cars were defined by how many cylinders the near-silent engines had, the smoothness of the transmission or maybe the perfection of the stitching in the leather seats.
These attributes are still a given, to a greater or lesser extent. But where perhaps consumers would spend time deliberating over whether to go for a V6 or V8, or the light or dark walnut veneer trim, it’s now as likely to be the features enabled by millions of lines of code, running systems such as adaptive cruise control, GPS-guided headlamps or just the seamless integration of your iPod.
Although some of these features appear in even the smallest vehicles now, most begin in the luxury class from carmakers such as Audi, BMW and Daimler. All have massive R&D budgets to find the next breakthrough technologies in safety, infotainment, chassis and powertrain. Electronics enable much of the progress.
“This field is very bright and is becoming more and more important,” says Ricky Hudi, Audi’s head of electrics and electronics development. “We say that 90% of the innovations coming into vehicles are through at least the support of electronics. This is the most fantastic job I can imagine.”
Hudi’s role comes with a lot of responsibility – he oversees the development of electric and electronic architectures, networking, wiring harnesses, integration, batteries, and complex systems such as the human-machine interface (HMI).
The challenge, or opportunity he says, is managing the increasing levels of functionality in existing vehicles’ HMIs, connectivity, advanced driver-assistance (ADAS) and comfort systems.
And that means software. Hudi puts great emphasis on core competence in its specification, development, integration and testing. This is also why Audi founded three joint ventures in 2009 dedicated to software development. The biggest – with Elektrobit, called e-solutions – handles infotainment software development. Another, with Gigatronik, does chassis, and the third deals with ADAS and integrated safety systems. These project houses take a lot of resourcing but they are of strategic importance to the OEM because intellectual property and its application is developed internally, and not outside by suppliers.
“That 90% of innovation related to electronics – of that, 80% is software,” Hudi says. “So you can imagine how important it is for a carmaker to dominate and have everything in its own hands to realise it.”
Software is one thing. The networks linking the systems that use it is another. Audi leads development of electric and electronic architectures for the whole Volkswagen Group, based on its centralised gateway structure.