Drive by Ethernet?

I read last week that BMW has been researching the use of the Internet Protocol (IP) over standard Ethernet (Cisco) to network automotive controllers (‘BMW brings Internet protocol under the hood‘, EETimes).

The motivation for the research is that at present, a number of different networking technologies (including CAN, LIN, MOST and FlexRay) are used in automotive applications, and these are optimized for different types of application, but the lack of standardization results in complexity and cost.

So, I was expecting the article to say that BMW had found Ethernet to be suitable for non-critical applications, but not well-suited to critical systems. Sure enough, the article mentioned that the network had included a multimedia server and a camera (presumably for assisting reversing rather than videophone calls), but I was surprised that the BMW research group had found that:

‘IP could well suit the real-time requirements even of safety-critical applications...Our experiments with prototypes demonstrated, that the real-time
behaviour far exceeded the requirements — even when we ran multimedia
applications across the same network’

Why was I surprised? Well, Ethernet, following its invention at Xerox PARC in the early ’70s has become extremely widely used due to an ongoing favourable performance to price ratio, but it does suffer from latency and determinism problems to a certain extent, and while this has been acceptable for many uses including even some A&D mission-critical systems, safety-critical systems which require predictable
latency and guaranteed delivery have often used profiled Ethernet implementations
(such as ARINC 664) instead, sometimes with the additional expense of AFDX dual-redundant networking.

So, the BMW research engineers must have found away around the automotive problem? According to the article, they used Quality of Service (QOS) and traffic-shaping (wikipedia) techniques to achieve the real-time performance requirement, but unfortunately it doesn’t go into details. I’m curious to know if the network profiling requirements for automotive applications have any similarities with avionics networks, or if there are major differences in terms of latencies and traffic characteristics. Maybe there’s scope for more technology transfer between the two sectors (as I mentioned in my previous blog)?

There is potentially another interesting parallel between automotive and A&D – the use of multiple networks. In aircraft, multiple on-board networks are used for avionics systems, crew information systems and passenger infotainment systems, separated by firewalls for reasons of safety and security. (This also has the added benefit of reducing the safety certification burden of systems because they are not connected to the avionics network). In a car, I would expect that the automotive control systems would be on a separate network from the infotainment systems (for safety and security reasons).

According to the EETimes article, BMW doesn’t have any current plans to put this technology into a production model yet, new technologies often appear in manufacturer’s new high-end models, and then the technologies tend to trickle down to other model ranges.

So, unfortunately I might have to wait a while to do a back-to-back test of Ethernet-driven and conventional versions of BMW’s awesome new V8-powered M3 to compare the latencies of the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC)…

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