Several European automakers and electronics suppliers have launched a major initiative to set standards for future in-car control systems.
In simple terms, they want to make it easier to let the growing number of in-car electronic devices talk to each other.
The FlexRay Consortium currently consists of BMW, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Bosch, Motorola and Philips. The group is trying to develop a common language that will allow higher data rates, more complex commands and greater support of fault-tolerance communication between different x-by-wire functions.
Philips Semiconductors is producing FlexRay transceiver chip testing. Meanwhile, Motorola is supplying a FlexRay communication controller and defining the integration of the protocol into its own 16- and 32-bit micro-controllers.
There has been a surge in new in-car control systems, from traffic information and road guidance to speed control devices. What's more, each system has its own proprietory electronics. That is complicating communication between the controls, said Harald Heinecke, spokesman for the FlexRay Consortium.
"If you add x-by-wire, there would be too many variants," he said.
Heinecke is responsible for systems design at BMW's research and innovation center in Munich and for the electronic architecture of BMW group vehicles.
"What we need is fewer technologies, but technologies which are powerful enough to cope," he said.
FlexRay will be applied in areas such as steer-by-wire and brake-by-wire, systems where electronics replace mechanical linkages.
It will complement existing standards including CAN/TTCAN and MOST/Firewire. CAN/TTCAN is used for devices where a failure cannot be allowed, such as anti-skid braking systems, electronic suspension programs and engine management. MOST/Firewire is used for fault-tolerant functions such as mobile communications.
"The idea is for us to have forward standardization," says Heinecke.
Many applications do not already have an industrywide standard available as a package, he said. And other areas such as powertrain applications will become more demanding in future.
A standard is inevitable sometime, said Heinecke, and "the FlexRay Consortium aims to accelerate that process."
He believes the FlexRay standard eventually could become the basis of an electronic architecture, or backbone, for vehicles. If that happens, various control devices could be virtually plugged into the system.
The partners intend FlexRay to be an open standard, but have restricted the number of core members to make the development of standards more manageable.
Other companies can gain access to the technology through associate membership.
BMW and DaimlerChrysler began looking at in-vehicle networking systems in 1999 to integrate advanced functions, such as steer-by-wire and brake-by-wire.
The FlexRay Consortium was formed in September 2000. BMW and DaimlerChrysler devised a package of basic requirements likely to be needed on automotive systems over the next decade.
Bosch formally joined in October 2000, and General Motors in September 2001. FlexRay held its first global workshop in April.
Said Heinecke: "We expect to have the first FlexRay controls appearing in production vehicles starting around 2006."