When was the last time you didn’t feel safe?
It was probably, and hopefully, a very long time ago. Advances in technology have provided us with the digital equivalent of a comfort blanket, doing an excellent job of wrapping us up in cotton wool to protect us from the dangers of modern life.
But wait for a moment. Imagine yourself in a car. You’re thundering along the motorway at 70mph and you see brake lights ahead. You move your foot above the brake pedal and apply pressure. Nothing happens…
The throttle remains open and the car refuses to relent.
The cause? An accelerator pedal sensor relaying an incorrect value to the electronic control unit (ECU). It’s not a mechanical problem, it’s electrical. And it’s causing the car to hurtle beyond your control.
Stay in this moment, but rewind back to the beginning when the sensor relayed the wrong value.
This time around, the car’s ECU stops that sequence of events occurring. It detects the failure and reduces torque from the engine, slowing the car down, enabling you to pull to the side of the road in a safe and controlled manner. You can breathe a sigh of relief.
This time, functional safety has come to the rescue.
The evolution of functional safety
Up until 2018, the concept of detecting a failure and shutting down the system was predominant at McLaren Applied – a fail-safe mode in a bid to enhance safety and minimise damage to components.
This year has seen the adoption of a new concept, fail-operational, whereby a fault in one component does not prevent the whole system from working correctly. Instead, the system reconfigures to compensate for the fault.
It’s about making some of the vehicle’s performance still available to the driver, when possible and safe to do so. It might be a case of allowing the driver to reach a top speed of no more than 30mph, for example.
Granted, you’re not going to win any ‘Fast and Furious’ style drag races and you will most likely miss your daughter’s piano recital, but crucially you’ll have enough performance to get home or to a local service centre for repairs.
The rapid evolution of functional safety is relentless however. The next seismic shift in approach is on the horizon and is set to take hold from 2020 to 2030, with high-performance, self-driving technology emerging as a crucial pillar of future mobility.
A concept of high dependability will come to the fore based upon advanced failure prediction, and will see automotive functional safety having evolved from reactive to proactive in less than a decade.
A crucial role in the future of mobility
Autonomous vehicles are putting functional safety centre stage. They have sparked the need for absolute certainty that electronic systems will function as intended, without malfunction, and that preventative or corrective measures are adopted to mitigate a hazardous event.
Now ask yourself this: Would you put a loved one in a car that drives unaided without the inputs of a human?
You’re probably pretty hesitant and wanting to know how safe said car is.
You want to have complete, unwavering confidence in the product. The same kind of confidence NASCAR teams have in our TAG-400N ECU which hasn’t had a single failure on track since it was introduced in 2012. That’s over three million miles of racing!
This is where functional safety comes in.
There is plenty of excitement and furore around autonomous driving, but to make it possible and part of our everyday lives, we have to make it safe.
Will we ever get to the stage where safety can be guaranteed?
Well, let’s put it this way. ECUs have been on cars for half a century, and their failure rate is now so low that it’s all too easy to forget the crucial role they play.
For the past two years, McLaren Applied has been working with a company that is pioneering the use of autonomous vehicles. We have used our expertise in electronic systems and sensor technology to develop an ECU which overcomes the challenges associated with the absence of a driver and can predict failures in advance.
Shutting down the vehicle every time a fault is detected is not acceptable. Whenever possible and safe to do so, the ECU allows the car to continue to function, reducing inconvenience and minimising time needed for repair.
Setting the standard
Functional safety in automotive is critical and far-reaching, and is underpinned by three important letters, and five numbers which are just as significant: ISO 26262.
No, it’s not a collection of alphanumerics from the barcode found plastered on the side of the can of your favourite soft drink. ISO 26262 is a safety standard McLaren Applied adheres to when developing automotive safety systems.
It defines how functional safety should be handled, taking into consideration a range of factors if there were to be a failure for example, including what would happen to the driver and other road users, the severity of the outcome, as well as how the failure can be controlled and to what extent.
Our aim is to identify as many faults and potential risks as possible during the design phase on both the hardware and software side, and then eliminate those failures or put in place processes to deal with them prior to reaching the testing and implementation phase. This reduces cost and additional lead time.
Looking even further ahead, from 2030 onwards, functional safety must evolve once again to encompass cybersecurity.
But what does cybersecurity have to do with functional safety?
Soon, many updates to your car and its ECU will be carried out remotely via the internet. No booking in a trip to get your car serviced. No technician plugging a laptop in via the on-board diagnostics (OBD) port.
And no twiddling your thumbs in a waiting room almost as damp as Davey Jones’ Locker, where your only a companion is a lukewarm cup of something that’s supposed to be coffee, but tastes suspiciously earthy.
In short, it will be like the updates that take place on your mobile phone. Simple, quick and painless.
The cost of all this convenience? Impenetrable layers of cybersecurity will be required to ensure that ECUs are not vulnerable to intrusion, which could inhibit the safety protocols of the component and cause it to behave dangerously.
Mechanisms will need putting in place to prevent ECUs from being hacked. That’s right, forget your laptop or the Pentagon, we’re talking about the potential for an unscrupulous character to hack into your car’s ECU and cause it to not behave as expected. That would certainly spice up the school run.
Always on trend
In some quarters, the word ‘safety’ is scoffed at. It’s not considered “cool”, as if it went out of fashion along with tube tops and padded shoulders.
The reality however, is that it’s a staple in everyone’s wardrobe. The essential base layer you cannot go without, rain or shine.
It’s enabling the future of mobility, and McLaren Applied is focused firmly on the road ahead with functional safety at the core of everything we do.
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