Digital twins are key to innovation in automotive: Serughetti

Consumers continue  to set a high bar on the advanced features they expect to align with their non-stop lifestyles. As a result, their modes of transportation (for many of their cars) need to adapt and support the technologies to enable convenience, safety, and security of connected services.

As of a decade ago, such capabilities were limited and delivered through dedicated and often black-box electronic units, resulting in a complex web of in vehicle networking and electronic control units that could only be maintained by going to a local mechanic. Today, the automotive industry is being revolutionized through new vehicle electrical/electronic architectures, as well as semiconductor and software platforms implementing new and easily upgradeable functions. These functions will create enjoyable, safe, and secure experiences for the next decade’s drivers while at the same time providing the automotive industry with new revenue streams.

These changes in automotive electronics do not come without development challenges for automotive companies who have to integrate an increasingly complex set of capabilities, deliver them with the expected safety and security, and accelerate their development cycle. One technology that fits this assignment is digital twins, a concept with a wide array of benefits, including reduced operating costs, faster time to market, overall enhanced quality of products, better collaboration across supply chains, and other benefits that apply to automotive..

Digital twin use cases in auto electronics

Digital twins have many other advantages for the automotive industry as they can be deployed anywhere, at any time, and can scale without any of the limitations of complex physical test benches.

The most common use cases include:

Electronic System Development – Digital twins provide great value to the development of electronic system (hardware and software) in the automotive space. Virtual ECUs (a digital twin of an electronic control unit or a system of electronic control units) are software simulations of physical ECUs that can be used for testing and development. They allow engineers to test and develop vehicle systems and functions without the need for actual hardware, which can be costly and time-consuming. Virtual ECUs can also be used to simulate different scenarios and test the performance of systems under various conditions, such as extreme temperatures or high-speed driving. This allows for more efficient and cost-effective development and testing of vehicle systems before they are implemented in actual vehicles.

Starting Earlier and Shifting Left – Digital twins enable development to start earlier by decoupling electronic development from physical systems availability. It reinforces a shift-left approach through both frontload testing and early hardware and software integration. Using this method, automotive designers can get out ahead of the design process by reducing the amount of time spent redesigning and validating late in the development process. It also ensures that physical system integration time is reduced to a minimum by addressing most potential issues well in advance.

Establishing a Software Mindset – As vehicles become software driven, digital twins bring a “software-first” mindset. Software validation and verification often required physical systems to be available. Software development team activities can now be decoupled from hardware and physical system availability.

Collaboration – Modern automotive systems are developed in collaboration between OEMs and their suppliers. Digital twins provide an efficient collaboration platform enabling OEMs to evaluate multiple supplier solutions as well as enabling suppliers to validate their solution in the context of the OEM’s overall system. For example, an OEM establishing a vehicle digital twin could request a supplier to provide a digital twin of their specific component that can then be validated in the context of the overall vehicle digital twin.

What if you could drive millions of miles in parallel and virtually? Or test corner cases and dangerous scenarios from the safety of your office? The possibilities are endless.

Accelerating Over-the-Air updates

The value of digital twins is not limited to the initial development of vehicles. The benefit of software is that it can be easily maintained, updated, and upgraded for over-the-air (OTA) updates. This is a key value proposition for next-generation automotive OEMs offering the additional capabilities for functionality on demand as well.

OTA updates allow for the remote and automatic updating of software on a vehicle's electronic systems. These updates can include bug fixes, security patches, and new features. Using digital twins for continuous integration and test can greatly reduce the cost and time associated with testing on physical vehicles. Engineers can simulate the update process and test the performance of the updated software before it is sent to actual vehicles. This allows for more efficient and cost-effective development and testing of OTA updates before they are implemented in actual vehicles.

A must-have for future automotive electronics development and test

Digital twins are a must-have development methodology and infrastructure for automotive OEMs focusing on delivering the next generation of software-driven automotive systems. Today, market-leading OEMs and their suppliers are establishing such digital twin best practices and environments working with EDA companies.  

Like any transformation, it is important for automotive electronics leaders to set a vision for digital twin development along with intermediate milestones for progressive and iterative deployment based on use cases, subsystem development and, ultimately, system validation. 

Marc Serughetti is senior director of embedded systems at Synopsys.