Electronics malfunction in the automotive industry

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In the space of a generation, car design and manufacture has evolved beyond recognition. The cars we see on the street today may look similar to those driven by our parents, but one look inside and the difference is plain to see. The modern day driver has access to non-stop interactive information from communication, safety, navigation and entertainment devices. Under the bonnet, electronic control units (ECUs) coordinate a vast array of cameras, communications systems, sensors and GPS devices, gathering information and relaying it to vital systems including the lights, breaks and engine.

With the rapid development of new technology, particularly in PCB and electronics manufacturing, and the ferocity of industry competition, there’s increased pressure to move from design board to production line quicker than ever. But as we increasingly put our lives in the hands of these complex electronic systems, are we sacrificing tried and tested methods for the thrill of high tech gadgetry?

With the emerging strengths of new markets in China and India, the pressure is on manufacturers to create reliable, versatile and economic models for an increasingly savvy consumer. As companies wake up to the potential of previously neglected territories, competition is focused on low cost, high spec vehicles. This has seen the introduction of new technologies with little prior testing history and an over reliance on third party providers’ safety and production standards.

Recent years have seen several high profile recalls in the automotive industry. At the start of 2013, Toyota, Honda and Nissan recalled a staggering 3.4 million vehicles worldwide because of faulty passenger seat airbags sourced from the same provider. This would seem to suggest that once rigorous standards of testing are falling by the wayside. And therein lies the problem; without an effective method of ensuring the quality of each and every component part used in the manufacture of consumer vehicles, faults, accidents and recalls will not only continue but increase.

The risks associated with engine control units, active and passive components, sensors, and systems that rely on hardware-software interaction are magnified when parts are supplied by different manufactures, and further research is needed in to the methods used to screen, test and approve these components. Indeed at the PCB and electronics manufacturing level.

The key challenge faced by the automotive industry may not be the parts themselves, rather the way in which they work together. In the event of fault or failure, it’s essential to be able to identify the component with which the incident has occurred. However, an industry fixation with technological synergy has created a situation where this can at times be impossible. But this needn’t be the case.

PCB and electronics scrutiny in aviation

Take aeroplanes, for example; they have highly sophisticated fault detection and prognostic capabilities allowing engineers and manufacturers to identify, with relative ease and speed, the origin of mechanical and electronic failure. By applying this principal to the electronics found in automobiles and creating a system based on a series of multiple independent subsystems rather than a homogenous whole, it would be possible to leverage complex diagnostic methods to identify and remedy a wider range of faults and eliminate the worrying emergence of “no-fault-found” conclusions when a problem occurs.

As the industry makes leaps and bounds towards a more environmentally friendly output, a fundamental shift towards electronic and hybrid capabilities is emerging. But this sea change comes with complications of its own.

One simple but potentially problematic example is the European Union’s End of Vehicle Life Directive set to come in to force in January 2016. The directive prohibits the use of lead based solder to connect electronic components, bringing the automotive industry in line with the consumer-based electronics industry. However, the suggested use of a tin-silver-copper solder composite, now commonly used in computers, TVs and other electronic devices, has raised concerns about its suitability under the harsh environmental conditions typically associated with road travel. Experts point to the phenomenon of ‘tin whisker’ formation common in tin based compounds as a suspected cause in electronic failures.  With such an elemental aspect of vehicle manufacture uncertain less than three years before it’s set to change, the car manufacturing industry could be accused of moving too far, too fast.

As the human element is further removed from the manufacturing process, it could be argued that too much faith is placed in processes and procedures that are changing too rapidly. With the automotive industry competing on a global scale, can we be sure that the cars being produced are as safe as we are told, or does the introduction of complex electronic systems herald a new set of problems?