The automotive industry has traditionally operated on an 'ECU-per-function' basis, meaning that distinct functions such as instrument clusters, infotainment systems or driver assistance systems each require a separate processor. This has led to most modern cars having at least 30-50 ECUs - with all the complexity and inefficiencies that this brings with it.
Now things are beginning to change, as car manufacturers search for enhanced performance and cost savings, while improvements in chipsets make it feasible to run multiple functions from the same ECU.
The most immediate impact will be felt within the infotainment and instrument clusters. Today these are generally designed by different teams within an OEM and sourced to different suppliers. But keeping those two functions apart while retaining a seamless user experience is becoming harder to manage. Instead, various OEMs are now converging those two teams into one, and sourcing a single advanced ECU that can support both the head unit and the instrument cluster.
Suppliers have been quick to adapt, with Visteon, Bosch and Harman all demonstrating recently the benefits of running multiple displays from the same ECU. In doing so, OEMs are being promised a more holistic and consistent user experience, and a reduction in the total cost of ownership by scaling back vehicle architecture complexity.
Despite all of the potential benefits, challenges remain. Re-organising teams within OEMs is difficult logistically (and politically). Managing the legacy of existing headunits is also tough - according to SBD's Headunit Tracker, some OEMs have as many as 25 variants of headunits across all of their models. There are also various technical challenges associated with running both safety-critical and non safety critical functions from the same ECU, requiring heavy virtualisation at both a hardware and software level.
But gradually more and more OEMs will overcome these challenges and make this transition, which in turn will dramatically change the tier-1 supplier landscape. Convergence of ECUs coupled with a simplification of headunit line-ups will lead to a greater number of 'winner-takes-all' contracts for Tier-1s, compared to before when suppliers could hope to at least get a part of the business for at least some of the OEM's platforms. It will also make it harder for suppliers with only partial solutions to compete effectively, allowing larger players like Bosch and Denso that develop both instrument clusters and infotainment platforms to scoop up more business. Others will need to partner up or make strategic acquisitions to remain competitive in the longer term (which partially explains why the largest supplier of instrument clusters, Visteon, purchased Johnson Control's infotainment business)
The first cars leveraging a converged ECU architecture that supports multiple displays are expected to arrive on the market by 2020, giving suppliers a limited time to adapt to this new reality. Grand ambitions of moving from a decentralised 50-ECU strategy to a single centralised 'super brain' may still be far off, but that journey is already starting today.