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One of the major dilemmas that automakers are increasingly facing is how to keep pace with the electronics revolution. Within days of a design freeze, some new electronic feature is almost bound to have been introduced that will date the vehicle if it is not included. The answer, according to Dr. Thomas Raith, director of the Diagnosis and Flash Technologies Center, Global Service & Parts at DaimlerChrysler, is to take a tip from the PC industry. "In much the same way as computers can be individualized by integrating the latest programs, it will in the future be possible to upgrade cars flexibly, rapidly and matched to personal taste in terms of their electronic systems," he says. "The key in this respect is Flash technology."
Until now, a control unit and its function–the hardware and software–were inseparably linked with each other and treated as an entity. Flash technology supports the disengagement of automotive hardware and software. "With flashing, the complexity of onboard electrics and electronics can be disentangled, making it possible to develop, produce or service hardware and software separately from each other," says Dr. Raith.
He explains that DaimlerChrysler realized long ago that software flexibility helps in mastering the diversity of functions in a vehicle and that the programming (flashing) of control units in production and service allows individual customer wishes to be fulfilled. In a project of the development, production and service departments, the technical and logistical foundations for the control of programmable software components–the Flashware–were defined on a global scale.
"The process of automotive control unit programming resembles the updating of a PC," says Dr. Raith. "In other words, transferring the latest program version to the PC's fixed disc. With Flash programming, functional programs and data can be loaded into control units and modified. This permits the installation of new functions, the updating and adjustment of software–its repair or reconstruction in the case of damage–or the elimination of defects." The advantages of Flash programming are significant, says Dr. Raith. If the software of a control unit no longer meets customer requirements or legal specifications, it is no longer necessary to replace the complete control unit in a time-consuming operation; instead, new software is loaded and the relevant unit is rapidly re-programmed. This not only reduces the amount of work involved, but also significantly cuts the costs of materials, logistics, transportation, and warehousing. In addition, the time and costs of workshop visits are tangibly reduced for the customer.
Contrary to a PC, though, a vehicle requires extensive security provisions when it comes to the use of software. "Vehicles are extremely complex systems with a significantly higher degree of networking," says Dr. Raith. "The numerous functions have to interact without a hitch to ensure maximum safety for the driver and other road users. To live up to this great responsibility for the customer in terms of safety, liability and warranty, DaimlerChrysler has taken appropriate precautions in its products, processes and systems.
"From development through to production and service, we have implemented consistent, reliable processes in which the programming software–the Flashware–can be treated as an independent component. This means you can use it in much the same way as you would use a bolt that, independently of the vehicle component it fastens, is documented, approved, procured and phased into production–i.e., integrated in the production process. This requires a logistical system for the software in the form of transportation channels, warehouses and tools for ‘installation'."
Dr. Raith says that to permit the reliable control of logistical processes, every software scope has to be given a label–an item number–that identifies it unambiguously. As a result, the software can be handled throughout the corporation and throughout the world in all existing documentation and production control systems. Using the item number, the software can be ordered, priced and invoiced in much the same way as a hardware component. Both online and offline processes exist for software distribution.
Every control unit programming operation must be clearly retraceable, not just in terms of in-house processes but also with respect to the requirements of legislation and product liability. A central computer stores all data relating to the software status of every Mercedes-Benz vehicle at any given point in time. From this database, information can at all times be retrieved by development, production and service departments, as well as by authorized third parties. "A comprehensive security concept, preventing manipulation by unauthorized third parties, was developed to ensure that only software approved for a given component is programmed into a control unit. In this way, DaimlerChrysler has created a consistent, secure and standardized overall process, incorporating appropriate, state-of-the-art systems."
Production has been under way for some time at some DaimlerChrysler plants. It was first introduced to the Bremen plant in 2001 for the new Mercedes-Benz SL. This was followed by the Sindelfingen plant at the start of 2002 for the new E-Class while the Wörth plant has been gearing up for the introduction of flashing in the standard production of the new Actros truck this fall. While certain Chrysler models, such as the Chrysler Voyager, are also equipped with re-programmable control units, the Chrysler plants are using their own reprogramming processes and systems for the time being. "The electrical and electronic processes and systems of the two brands, Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler, are, however, to a growing extent being adjusted to one another on the basis of a jointly developed electronics architecture," says Dr. Raith. "And DaimlerChrysler also sets organizational standards. To control the cross-brand diagnosis and control Flash processes, a center of competence was founded at headquarters to assume responsibility for development, production and service."
At the same time, DaimlerChrysler has been preparing its worldwide workshop network for Flash technology. Until recently, up-to-date Flashware was supplied to Mercedes-Benz service outlets on CD-ROM. Since the spring of this year, though, it has been making the software available to all Mercedes-Benz workshops in Europe and North America online via an Intranet link. Offline distribution via CD-ROM will, however, be retained for the time being since not all countries have the sort of matured infrastructure that is required for smooth online distribution.
In future, programmable components and control units will be used increasingly in automotive production, cutting costs for both suppliers and vehicle producers. The cost-cutting potential results from larger control unit batch sizes and a reduction in the diversity of control units. The hardware suppliers are therefore no longer automatically the developers of the matching software, thereby providing OEMs with greater flexibility.
"DaimlerChrysler has the possibility of developing the software in-house, thereby distinguishing itself from the competition," says Dr. Raith. "Flashing thus forms part of a motor manufacturer's technology strategy because, in future, the individual car brands will distinguish themselves from others in terms of equipment and performance features, which will be based on individual software solutions to a growing extent. The safe and low-cost Flash technology is a decisive step in this direction."