A lot of ink has been spilled (if that term still can be used in the digital age), on the coming driverless “revolution.”
Yet a much simpler “evolution” is long overdue for automative technology: the inside.
Anyone who has replaced any component on a car – dashboard, door panel, side-view mirror, radio, engine part, or any component at all – is familiar with the swamp of wiring that snakes its way behind every panel on the car.
Every single component has what is known as its “harness”, automative lingo for its wiring. The wiring, however, looks nothing like the simplicity that connects your home router to the cable modem or laptop to its mouse.
The following picture is the “simple” harness that I once used to connect an after-market radio to a Mitsubishi:
Every part in the car has its own harness: the power window, the powered mirror, the trunk light, you name it.
Look under your dashboard, behind the steering wheel and above the driver’s pedals, and you will see a forest of wires, all tightly tied together and shoved into whatever nook and cranny can be found.
If that were the entire story, it would be bad enough. Unfortunately, it is just the beginning.
Each car has its own unique cabling system, its own “harness”. Even though there are (sort of) standards in the ISO connectors, these apply primarily to audio systems. In any case, they are adopted very rarely by automobile manufacturers.
Adding insult to injury, the manufacturers change the harnesses between model years for the same car, and even between models of car for the same year.
Finally, each harness has one cable per type of data or power. Don’t try to calculate the permutations of numbers of potential harnesses; it is a terrible waste of good math.
The really sad part is that these thousands of wires and dozens of harnesses, carry just two things:
Sure, each component requires a little different data, and different levels of power, but at heart, these are just wires carrying data and power.
To understand how absurd the current automotive reality is, imagine translating it to the computer industry. We will enter a world where:
- Every component you connect – network, mouse, keyboard, monitor, scanner, DVD drive, hard drive – has its own connector with 10-15 different cables
- Each component also has its own, unique connector type
- Each computer manufacturer has its own connector: Lenovo uses one type, Apple another, Dell another, ASUS another.
- Each manufacturer uses different connectors for different components.
- Each manufacturer changes its connectors for that component every model year or two.
I highly doubt the computer business ever would have gotten very far!
Yet, this is precisely what occurs in the automotive components business.
In the technology industry, we have had two types of standardized cables that carry data and power for decades.
- USB: That ubiquitous USB port on your laptop, now heading into USB-C, can carry both data and power in a single simple cable, with a simple, standard plug format. With each generation, the amount of power it can carry and the bandwidth of data has increased. The already-aging USB 2.0 standard, released as far back ago as 2000, can carry 480 Mbps. No data anywhere in a car, especially to peripherals like audio and windows, requires even a tiny fraction of that.
- Ethernet: The Ethernet cable that links your modem to your router or your office desktop to the wall, known by its “Category” designation (you probably are using Cat-6), carries data at tremendous bandwidth and speeds, far in excess of anything your car components carry. It also has had the ability for years to carry power to end devices. Gigabit Ethernet, which is a little faster than twice the aforementioned USB 2, was released by IEEE in 1998.
The obvious question, then, is does it matter? Does anyone really care if the hidden cables are unwieldy, bulky, hard to figure out, expensive, hard to connect?
The current situation has terrible cost impacts. It increases all of the following:
- Cost of each component;
- Manufacturing cost of the car, due both to higher component costs and higher labour costs;
- Amount of inventory write-down for the manufacturer and component supplier;
- Amount of inventory write-down by spare parts suppliers;
- Cost of maintaining the vehicle due to more time to do work (this hits you, car owner);
- Cost of maintaining due to special skills to work with each vehicle type (you, again);
- Cost of any changes or upgrades (and again, you).
Now imagine a different world.
- A standard cable, similar to Ethernet or USB, but with the physical specifications to handle an automobile’s environment, connected everything.
- A single bus (or two for redundancy) running from front of car to back.
- A single cable from the bus to each door, with a hub to each component in that door.
- A single cable from the bus to the trunk/hood.
- A single cable from the bus to the stereo.
- A single cable from the bus to the dashboard.
A power window, for example, should require a single cable that carries power and a coded signal to go up or down. An audio system should have just power and a few wires for serial data of any kind; instead, it has 10 or 15 cables!
The technology hardware industry has had standardized cables for decades (it is called a Universal Serial Bus, or USB, for a reason). It has standard connectors, standard pinout, standard sizing, and carries data and power far in excess of just about every automotive application outside of the brakes and engine.
While the big visionaries look to bring us cars that drive themselves – the name “automobile” means “self-moving” – there is much that can be done immediately to make the existing cars, and the future ones, better, faster and cheaper to build and maintain.