Electronics have revolutionized the automobile, opening doors to dramatic improvements in safety, comfort, convenience and enhanced performance.

Computer chips are proliferating across vehicle architectures, and some of today’s Cadillacs have about 50 electronic controllers onboard. Even the cheapest, smallest cars in the world have a handful of processors to manage powertrain functions.

Funny thing is, the average consumer never sees these vital bits of hardware, which are tucked away underbody, inside the instrument panel, underhood and behind door panels, concealing enormous amounts of computing brainpower.

As long as the memory seats greet a vehicle owner each morning with his or her favorite setting, as long as the stability control system keeps a vehicle pointed straight on an icy road and prevents a collision, and as long as we can program the nearest Starbucks into our navigation system, then the electronic controller has done its job.

Things just automatically happen when the driver turns the key, or, as is the case in a growing number of high-end vehicles, pushes the button.

But getting to this level of functionality doesn’t come magically. The human brain took millions of years to evolve; automotive controllers have at least taken decades.

Behind every controller is an underlying infrastructure, a complicated layer where the software connects to the hardware and where low-level drivers do their business.

This complex layer is a vital enabler and one that, in most cases, requires a ground-up development from engineers each time a vehicle program is going to add an exciting new gizmo, such as cylinder deactivation in a V-8 or V-6 engine.

Pistons may go dormant for awhile, but only because a sophisticated engine controller told them to, by sending a signal to cut off air and fuel to certain cylinders.

The infrastructure to allow this interaction requires just as much attention from powertrain engineers as the engine controller itself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Efforts to standardize these underlying systems, such as the Automotive Open System Architecture (Autosar), have been advancing for several years.

Several auto makers around the world plan to launch vehicles within the next three years employing Autosar, which standardizes non-competitive software in vehicles and allows OEMs to focus more intently on the applications that surprise and delight consumers.

“Autosar helps us create software platforms we can build applications on faster – those things people see and touch,” says James Buczkowski, director-electrical and electronics systems engineering implementation at Ford Motor Co.

“With Autosar, you can go from one architecture to another without having to design that layer over and over. It’s a foundation you can build off of,” Buczkowski says. “Whether you’re working on a powertrain controller or a chassis controller, this layer gives you the ability to have more portability, to develop applications and not start from scratch each time.”

This ability to reuse certain components, particularly software, also allows auto makers to more easily integrate new hardware such as faster microcontrollers.

For suppliers of electronic components, this aspect of Autosar is huge. If all suppliers are using the same design standard for basic software, then expensive proprietary operating systems from one company to the next can be eliminated.

In addition, each supplier’s device can communicate more readily with one another and can be interchanged, regardless of functionality.

For instance, in the active safety sector, auto makers are inching closer to a fully networked vehicle that allows braking and chassis electronics to integrate with body electronics and steering to intervene on behalf of the driver if sensors detect an imminent collision, says Helmut Fennel, vice president-systems and technology for Continental AG’s Automotive Divisions.

As one of the world’s largest suppliers of automotive electronics, Fennel says Continental is receiving “more and more requests from customers to include Autosar in their next (vehicle) platforms.”

Autosar is not necessary to enable this holistic approach to safer vehicles, but Fennel says it will simplify the process and drastically shorten the product-development time.

That’s because with the Autosar standard, a steering system from one supplier communicates effectively with a braking system from another. Kind of like letting your car walk and chew gum at the same time.

Production vehicles today already employ communication buses such as the Control Area Network (CAN), Local Interconnect Network (LIN) and Media Oriented Systems Transport (MOST) to connect certain electronic controllers within the vehicle.

Autosar will ensure these devices are communicating effectively, Fennel says.

“Today you have a situation in high-end cars in which the controllers are done by different companies. Each company is integrating the CAN message setup a bit differently,” he says.

“Also, the timing in these ECUs can be a little bit different, and this can lead to a network that’s not working,” he says. “You have to do a lot of work to synchronize these ECUs.”

Autosar eliminates that problem. “Because it’s standardized, you have the same software solution for the CAN bus.”

Complicated electronics in luxury vehicles, particularly from Mercedes-Benz, have led to glitches that have negatively impacted consumer-satisfaction studies.

Autosar can help vehicle engineers solve that problem. “With our high-end vehicles, we are at the limit where we cannot handle the complexity anymore with the current way of development,” Fennel says.

Ford’s Buczkowski agrees J.D. Power scores should climb once standard electronic architectures take root.

“Purely relying on testing at the vehicle level is not an effective way to prove out software,” he says. “But any code that is proven out, validated and reused reduces the amount of software errors and bugs in development. It definitely will improve quality.”

Autosar started out as a European initiative championed by BMW AG and Volkswagen AG. Other core members include Robert Bosch GmbH, Continental, Daimler AG, Ford, General Motors Corp., PSA Peugeot Citroen and Toyota Motor Corp.

The organization also has some 50 “premium members,” including Porsche AG, Fiat Group Automobiles SpA, Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Renault SA, Valeo SA, Delphi Corp., Denso Corp., Vector CANTech Inc., Fujitsu Microelectronics and a host of other suppliers.

Expect the all-new BMW 7-Series, always a showcase for the latest electronic features, to integrate certain Autosar enablers when the luxury sedan launches later this year in Europe.

In 2009, several vehicles will launch in Europe with Autosar on board, starting primarily in the interior and body electronic sectors, Fennel says. In subsequent years, other applications will follow, including powertrain, chassis and safety.

By 2012, Fennel says he expects vehicles on the road integrating Autosar’s full capability.

Ford’s primary conduit into Autosar has been its Volvo Cars unit, based in Sweden. But Buczkowski says Ford’s new global-engineering organization, which launched in April, is taking a more active role in Autosar, which will be important in the event Volvo separates from Ford.

“We’re not relying on Volvo to be involved in Autosar, as we had in the past,” he says.

Asked when Ford’s first Autosar-equipped vehicles will be on the road, Buczkowski says there are “no specific plans at this time.”

Likewise, Adam Opel GmbH has provided GM’s primary contact within Autosar, but the Detroit auto maker’s technical centers around the world have embraced the goals and objectives of Autosar, says Kent Helfrich, GM’s director-software engineering.

Larry Hallman, GM’s senior manager-software and controls (vehicle electrical), declines to say when a GM production vehicle will integrate the Autosar architecture.

But he says this fall GM is testing internally certain Autosar applications in the area of comfort and convenience.

Chrysler LLC does not belong to Autosar and lost its primary connection to the organization when DaimlerChrysler AG was dissolved last year. But a company spokeswoman tells Ward’s Chrysler intends to join the consortium.

The upcoming Convergence Transportation Electronics Conference, slated for Oct. 20-22 at Detroit’s Cobo Center, will highlight the latest advancements in automotive electronics and focus attention on standards such as Autosar.

Ironically, the Autosar consortium is not long for this world. Created in 2003, the official partnership will be dissolved in 2009, although a follow-up organization likely will be formed to carry on talks about standards for automotive electronics.

By the end of 2009, Autosar plans to release its most significant electronics specification, version 4.0, which will include vital testing procedures. “It will be a very mature standard,” Fennel says.

Average consumers won’t know – or care – whether Autosar is onboard their vehicles in the future. “But you can bet the current increase in available features that delight our consumers will continue, enabled by Autosar,” says GM’s Helfrich.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com