How research at York fuelled a revolution in automotive electronics

Millions of cars across the world owe the efficiency and reliability of their electronic systems to research carried out by our computer scientists.

Work by experts in our pioneering Real-Time Systems Research Group ensures the smooth running of programmes that control everything from fuel injection to brake lights.

And with new innovations such as driverless cars just around the corner, the demand for their specialist skills is accelerating.

“Car brakes are a simple example of the real time behaviour studied at York,” explains Dr Rob Davis, a Senior Research Fellow who joined the real time systems group as a PhD student shortly after its launch in the early 90s. “If you imagine approaching traffic lights – you put your foot on the brake, the brake lights go on and you slow to a stop. But there’s a lot more going on than that.

“Pressing the brake pedal closes a switch. This is detected by an Electronic Control Unit, also known as an ECU. The ECU passes a message over the network to another control unit at the back of the car. This message is then decoded, causing the brake lights to go on - this all happens in a fraction of a second.

“Now imagine similar events and responses happening hundreds of times a second throughout your car controlling everything from gear changes to fuel injection – and each action has to be executed within a strict time limit.”

Electronic nerve centre

Finding ways to guarantee that these digital messages and software tasks are processed correctly – and on time – has been an important focus for research in our Department of Computer Science. Over the last 25 years, the real time systems group has developed ways to make the electronic ‘nerve centres’ of our cars more efficient, more reliable and, crucially, less memory-intensive.

One of their most successful innovations is the world’s smallest and fastest automotive real-time operating system (RTOS). By 2015, this pioneering technology, which manages the processing of software tasks in the vehicle, had been used in over one billion Electronic Control Units in cars produced by nearly all of the world’s major car manufacturers.

The world’s smallest automotive real-time operating system (RTOS) was developed based on research at York, and is used by leading automotive manufacturers and suppliers.

Memory footprint

“We managed to radically reduce the memory footprint of the operating system. If you use less memory you can get an individual microprocessor at slightly lower cost and across a production run of a million or more cars, that adds up to a big saving,” says Dr Davis.

The new system attracted the attention of ETAS, a subsidiary of Robert Bosch the world’s largest supplier of automotive components. They recognised the advantages of the new product and in 2003, bought the start-up company set up by York researchers to develop the technology. ETAS then set up a new base in York which now employs many York graduates.

The operating system continues to dominate the automotive electronics market. Recent advances mean that it complies with the latest automotive standards and can now work on over 50 different types of microprocessor.

“Today, the number of control units in which the operating system is deployed increases at an astonishing rate of between one and two million new units a week,” explains Dr Davis. “It’s incredible to think that research carried out at York has gone on to have such a major impact in one of the world’s biggest manufacturing industries.”

Processing power

York continues to work at the forefront of advances in electronic systems. The latest research is studying the challenges posed by the increased processing power demanded by the next generation of complex automotive systems.

“We’ve seen a huge revolution in electronics over the years and as the automotive and aerospace industries develop new and more complex products, the demands for cutting edge research can only grow,” says Dr Davis. “York and in particular, the Real-Time Systems Research Group, is well placed to meet these challenges and we continue to work closely with industry to develop commercial applications for the ground-breaking research carried out by our computer scientists.”

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It’s incredible to think that research carried out at York has gone on to have such a major impact in one of the world’s biggest manufacturing industries.”

Dr Rob Davis
Department of Computer Science
Featured researcher
Dr Rob Davis

Dr Rob Davis

Research interests include real-time embedded systems, real-time scheduling and schedulability analysis for single processor, multiprocessor and networked systems

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