OTA reflashing the challenges and solutions

Reprogrammable onboard modules have been in automotive use for more than a quarter century. But as electronic controls inhabit virtually every system today, anyone with a late-model vehicle knows that at some point, one or more of its electronic control systems will need to be “reflashed” with new software—often more than once.

In fact, even where the problem may be all-mechanical, including bearing knock, it can be ameliorated by new software for the engine computer.

While some of the reflashes are for customer satisfaction items, such as the air conditioning system that won’t maintain set temperature, an increasing number are safety related. At best, perhaps 70% of the urgent notifications  of a safety recall bring the customer into the dealership, and both government and industry are looking  for ways to bring  it as close to 100% as possible.

With autonomous driving on the horizon, the security and safety aspects create a new urgency for the ability to perform updates on a timeline that doesn’t wait for the leisurely pace of a service appointment at the dealership.

Tesla success with OTA

Tesla’s recent use of over-the-air (OTA) reprogramming has been successful, but this emergent OEM has a comparatively small owner base and that makes vehicle identification a simpler task. The typical Tesla reflash takes 45 minutes, but because the vehicles are electric drive, they can be reprogrammed during a recharge. Vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel engines face the more difficult issue of assessing battery state of charge to ensure it is high enough to complete the reflash.

Some automotive reflashes  require so much time (perhaps more than a day) that presently the only way they can be made is with the car in a shop, using a proprietary factory tool or an SAE J2534 “Pass-Thru.” Such reprogramming also includes use of a dedicated battery charger made for the specific purpose, so it produces a “clean” current flow that is free of electrical noise (“ripple’) that could cause the operation to fail.

Because the carmakers are responsible for updates, they may start to install capacitors to smooth out the ripples from the charging  system, making OTAs more feasible.

A related factor is available bandwidth, which could be subject to considerable change over a cellular network. That’s why Tesla recommends its updates be performed with WiFi. Additionally, the OEM would have to design updates for piecemeal reflashing, so they can be installed incrementally as the system and needed battery capacity are available.

This issue goes beyond the need of a single module. Many updates are lengthy because of the design of the data bus in which it is installed. The update itself may apply for just the one module, but other modules on the bus may need to know about it, whether because there are new messages they must recognize, or know to ignore.

All suppliers of infotainment/ onboard communications and WiFi are working with car makers to develop systems with OTA reprogramming function comparable to Tesla, but the larger and more diverse the vehicle base, the more complex the task. There have been reports that several makers will begin to do some OTA this year.

Security is No. 1 issue

Russ Christensen, Director of Automotive Solutions Architecture for Wind River, a systems supplier in this area, said the No. 1 issue  has become security. It begins at each end (the source of the update at one, likely a cloud server, and the car’s infotainment system at the other) so each is talking to a known authority.  In the car that authority usually would be the telematics/gateway module.

The key to security is in the architecture, he said, telling Automotive Engineering that presently such appendages as the smartphone and watch, and keyless entry, hitherto not so considered, can be “threat vectors” into the car.  He added that the CAN bus (Controller Area Network) was not designed for encryption, although there are some strategies for accomplishing that.

Also required is a way to get an authenticated payload (the updated software) to the car and having an electronic “place” to hold it, Christensen said. A manifest comes down with all updates; the car says okay, a signature comes from the cloud and the car validates it.  The first update is then discharged to the ECU.  Which raises this issue: if the installation fails, the system needs to be able to activate a “restore” function to get the system back to original setting.

If there are three updates in the manifest, and the failure occurs during the third, there may need to be a removal function, so the system reflashes back to the original state.

“None of this is hard,” Christensen noted. “We just need the vehicle design to be able to do it.” He cited the example of an  “atomic update,” where all updates must be installed at once or none should be.

Bypassing owner OK

Christenson cited banking industry money transfers as an example of the way installations must be executed with secure protocols, where a scheduled data transfer must be completed instantaneously, or the entire transaction goes back to its previous state.

When there is an urgent safety update, the comparatively slow pace that includes owner evaluation and approval may need a work-around. There might be have to be a provision for abrogating authorization, although that would be a last resort for an OEM.

A critical aspect of the entire challenge of OTA updating is identifying the vehicle configuration.  Many OEMs right now do not have software configuration matrixes at a sufficient level of confidence to always be certain of the right software for all vehicles.

“The manufacturer can’t even rely on the VIN once the car has left the assembly line,” Christensen said, and certainly not if a module has been replaced.

Alfa Romeo finally returns to U.S. with 4C

After twenty years of absence and many delays, Alfa Romeo is finally coming back to the U.S., and the company is packing for the long haul. After the very-low-volume and very-high-end 8C, the Italian automotive manufacturer is officially returning with a two-seat, mid-engine sports car that can only be called a raw, untainted performance machine—or the 4C, depending on how poetic you want to be.

Alfa Romeo’s return has been nothing but poetic, with a series of broken promises and broken hearts for the brand-loyal fans here in the U.S. This time its official, as Alfa has signed with 82 dealerships across the U.S. to sell the new sports car. Three of the dealerships will be sharing showroom space with Maserati (in California, Maryland, and Wisconsin), while the rest of the 79 will be run alongside Fiat dealerships.

For those who have worked on bringing the car to the U.S. market, it means a lot. Michael Berube, Head of Product Planning for Alfa Romeo, is excited about the manufacturer’s return. “It’s not just any brand,” Berube said proudly. “Alfa Romeo is one of the oldest brands still in existence in the world today.” The iconic symbol has a storied history in racing and performance vehicles, earning a dedicated fan base in the U.S. and global markets.

The U.S. market, however, does not open its doors simply on nostalgia; it demands a car with unique performance to distinguish itself from the competition. With a renewed interest in the American muscle car and other luxury mid-engine sports cars, including a comparable Lotus, the 4C has its work cut out for it in the sports car arena.

According to Berube: “There really is no other car like it in the market, with this type of technology, with this price point, with this type of style.” At an initial price of $68,400, and with a $53,900 version quickly on its heels, Alfa Romeo has succeeded in the pricing promise, but what about the performance?

Performance and build

Labeling the 4C as an “uncompromised supercar,” Berube is confident that it will not disappoint. The turbocharged 1750-cm³ aluminum and direct-injected inline four-cylinder engine churns out 237 hp (177 kW) and 258 lb·ft (350 N·m).  With a curb weight of only 2465 lb (1118 kg), the 4C makes for an “extremely rare and fun driving feel.”

From just 1.75 liters, the 4C engine uses some noteworthy technology to churn out 258 lb·ft (350 N·m) of torque. The main goal of the powertrain’s design was to maximize the turbo’s effectiveness at all speeds. For instance, the turbocharger is equipped with a pulse converter exhaust manifold shaped to create a pulse that optimizes the torque out of the turbo. Additionally, Alfa uses scavenging technology, maximizing torque at low engine speeds, which is crucial for a small displacement engine. Powertrain engineers also made it a priority to put continuous variable valve technology on both the intake and exhaust valves.

At an impressive 10.4 lb/hp (6.3 kg/kW) weight/power ratio, we’re starting to see why Berube is calling it the “accessible supercar” and the “entrée” of the returning brand.  One of the biggest reasons for this superb ratio is the car’s monocoque. Weighing only 236 lb (107 kg) and constructed entirely from hand-laid carbon fiber, the 4C’s tub represents the core of Alfa’s innovation.

The monocoque’s carbon-fiber design begins with a pre-impregnated epoxy formed in unilateral strands, creating strong tensile strength. By layering the approximately 15 x 15 ft (4.5 x 4.5 m) carbon-fiber pieces, the monocoque retains the needed lateral strength as well as crash and bend strength. Functioning as one solid piece, the tub envelopes everything from the engine wall to the front of the cockpit.

The Alfa Romeo team continued with their lightweight mindset, structuring the front and rear subframes with aluminum. The body is primarily made of SMC (sheet molding compound), which enabled a 20% weight reduction in comparison to traditional sheet steel. According to the company, the 4C is the first standard production car to achieve such a high percentage of low-density SMC. This, along with the carbon-fiber monocoque, aluminum for the roof reinforcement cage and the front and rear frameworks, and PUR-RIM injected polyurethane on the bumpers and wings, the 4C uses a variety of different materials to help cut weight.

As much as the structure has been designed around the car’s ability to carve the road, an equal amount of design has been put into the electronic technology.The 4C is equipped with a mode selector that allows the driver to change the car’s level of performance according to the environment that he or she finds themselves. The four modes—Dynamic, Natural, All-Weather, and Race—allow adjustment of throttle calibrations and stability control. All-Weather mode, for instance, softens the throttle calibrations and increases the stability control intervention. Race mode completely disables the stability control and stiffens the throttle, allowing for a responsive driving experience. The 4C’s full-color instrument cluster is also in tune with these driving modes, signaling a change in performance with different colors and read-outs. In Race mode, the cluster changes altogether, reflecting the power and advanced technology with a “g-force” map.

Alfa Romeo’s return to U.S. not without concerns

One of the biggest concerns with the 4C’s transition from European to U.S. markets was the 342-lb (155-kg) weight gain. Much of the increase is due to U.S. safety regulations that are significantly steeper than those in Europe and includes the addition of side door-mounted airbags, an adjustable passenger seat, and a slightly thicker carbon-fiber tub. Not to mention that European OEMs weigh their cars without a radio or A/C, which accounts for 45 lb (20 kg) extra on the U.S. version.

Another big question for Alfa enthusiasts is how the cars will be serviced. With most supercar service shops sparsely littered across the U.S., it can be difficult to get a high end sports car in a shop. Thankfully for U.S. consumers, the 4C can not only be serviced in one of the 82 dealerships across the nation, but also if the carbon fiber is damaged, Alfa Romeo enlisted the help of specialists from Abiris, a world leader in advanced composite training, to make repairs.

According to Berube, “this isn’t just the return of Alfa Romeo, it’s the beginning.” The company has announced that a range of future models will be coming soon. The 4C is serving as the “calling card” of Alfa’s planned return, with a class-leading weight to power ratio, near 50-50 weight distribution, advanced technology, and an iconic Italian design.

Automotive industry unit in Tihar to be run by inmates

or the first time in the history of Indian automotive industry, a manufacturing unit has been set up inside a jail premises where work will be carried out by prison inmates.

The Director General of Delhi prisons, Alok Verma, today inaugurated the small scale automotive workshop in Jail number 2 of Tihar here, under a public-private partnership providing training and employment opportunities for the inmates.

The manufacturing unit has been set up by Minda Furukawa Electric Pvt. Ltd (MFE), a joint venture company between Spark Minda, Ashok Minda Group of India and Furukawa of Japan.

The company develops and produces the entire range of wiring harness for four wheelers, and components related to wiring harness.

“The inmates will profit in both long term and short term working here. They will be paid wages and will gain work experience which will be useful for them to rehabilitate themselves after completing their terms here,” Delhi prisons DIG and PRO Mukesh Prasad said.

The inmates working here will be supervised by professionals and will earn more wages in comparison to other inmates working in the jail.

“We are hopeful of making the inmates able to earn their living once they are out of jail by gaining technical experience,” Prasad said.

The venture was inaugurated in the presence of Delhi prisons DG, DIG, Chairperson of Spark Munda, Sarika Minda, President of MFE, A Maenishi and other senior officials.

Chief Marketing Officer of the Spark Minda Group said, “This initiative will certainly produce a sustainable collaborative social business model, which will benefit the convicts of Tihar Jail, their families and victims also.

“We are certainly exploring such avenues at other places also… The investments at Tihar includes machinery, raw material and other quality systems and procedures as laid down per policy and the facility will be run by jail convicts under the supervision of MFE.

“In this manufacturing unit, Wire Harness product, a key automotive component, will be manufactured by the Jail convicts,” he said. Initially 30 to 35 inmates are working on this joint project which is likely to be increased in future, Prasad said.