Will autonomous vehicles drive improvement in electronic reliability?

Driving is in the process of change. Parking assist, collision avoidance and lane control are already common features and evolving fast. With autonomous vehicles, however, it will be more a case of revolution and the driving experience will be radically different.

For this to take place, though, there will need to be significant improvement in electronics reliability.

Autonomous vehicles will not only contain more electronics, including sensors, for communications and power management, but these electronics will be subject to increasingly harsh environments and more demanding duty cycles.

Concept illustration for auto braking, lane keeping functions autonomous vehicles - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

No longer will cars be an under-utilised asset. No longer will they spend, according to some estimates, 95% of their lives in car parks or sitting on drives. It is anticipated that autonomous vehicles will bring about more car sharing and that usage could go up to 22 hours per day with typical annual mileages of 200k.

Electronics comprise a substantial proportion of the cost of the vehicle, close to 50%. So, controlling the future costs of safety-critical sensors requires a step change in the reliability of the electronics and software. It goes without saying that fail-safe operations must still be guaranteed.

There are other important considerations, such as increased voltage in electric vehicle drivetrains and the associated increase in temperature.

A consequence of these higher operating temperatures, as well as the need to move sensors closer to heat sources like braking and drive systems, is the added cost that comes with heavy cooling systems. These will need to withstand vibration for significantly extended periods, as a direct result of these increased duty cycles.

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Delivering the necessary high speed data processing will increase component density, both on the vehicle and on the associated roadside infrastructure. It will all add up to a growing challenge for the reliability of automotive electronics.

Manufacturers of electronic systems will need to develop methodologies and standards to assess component, manufacturing process and system robustness to meet these demands.

Many companies are already increasing their efforts in this arena. Their reliability prediction tests are a core part of the development process; they ensure that products will survive in the field over the intended design lifetime.

CROP - Technician at work Production Line - Image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The challenge is in the design of such tests which need to be as effective as possible in identifying the key vulnerabilities that could result in failures in the field, especially given the more demanding environments.

“Electronics designers need to be on the front foot if they are to deliver the required reliability,” advises Martin Wickham, who sits on the key electronics standards bodies (BSI, IEC and IPC) and has extensive experience working with UK, European and North American electronics manufacturers.

“Time and money spent understanding and characterising the electronics during the design and development phases is crucial and delivers considerable cost savings when compared to finding and solving problems in service. Working with key players across the industry enables us to devise efficient testing regimes that anticipate reliability issues.”

“Our team has extensive hands-on experience of simulating harsh environmental conditions and the predicting the resulting failure mechanisms. We stress electronics and continuously monitor the effect of varying temperature, environmental and electrical parameters.

“Rapid analysis of faults enables changes to be made and designs adapted to make the systems more reliable and robust. Working with NPL during the design and development phases enables lessons to be learnt as early as possible in the development process, reducing lifetime costs.’’

Electric car charging with plug - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Electric vehicles represent more than half of new vehicle registration in the UK and trials of autonomous vehicles are increasing on roads across the UK and worldwide. Growing demands on electronics are already being seen and customer expectations are rising quickly.

It is vital that automotive electronics providers respond today to the changes that are, to coin a phrase, coming down the road. Electronic manufacturers and designers need to ensure they are not left behind.

Dissemination of best practice in reliability assessment is central to NPL’s remit and our next free webinar is on 1 October. 

About Electronics Reliability 

NPL has the expertise, experience and world-leading test facilities to measure how electronics will perform throughout their lifetime, replicating in weeks the ageing that occurs over months and years.

We can find and mitigate failures, and evaluate materials, components and processes to help customers benefit from best practice approaches to design.

Our impartial support can provide reliability testing for customers in sectors from aerospace and defence to automotive and finance. We help them understand and optimise through-life performance of their electronic assemblies.


About NPL

NPL is the UK’s National Measurement Institute, providing the measurement capability that underpins the UK’s prosperity and quality of life.

From new antibiotics to tackle resistance and more effective cancer treatments, to secure quantum communications and superfast 5G, technological advances must be built on a foundation of reliable measurement to succeed.

Building on over a century’s worth of expertise, our science, engineering and technology provides this foundation. We save lives, protect the environment and enable citizens to feel safe and secure, as well as support international trade and commercial innovation.

As a national laboratory, our advice is always impartial and independent, meaning consumers, investors, policymakers and entrepreneurs can always rely on the work we do.

Based in Teddington, south-west London, NPL employs over 600 scientists. NPL also has regional bases across the UK, including at the University of Surrey, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Cambridge and the University of Huddersfield’s 3M Buckley Innovation Centre.

*All images courtesy of Depositphotos