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LA Times: The future of the automobile is being reshaped in California


Well-Known Member
Supporting Member
Jul 24, 2015
Clark Co, WA
A lot of this shift is due to car companies realizing that electronics in cars are no longer just add ons to the mechanical engineering. I was at Boeing when that same realization started seeping into upper management. My group had been at the cutting edge of commercial aircraft electronics since the early 60s. The lab had been built to test the electronics on the 727. With the 777, the electronics on the aircraft exploded and it had a big impact on the schedule.

Up until the 777, the master project planners for aircraft programs sort of ignored the electronics and focused on the metal. The electronics happened on a timeline that was minor enough to have little impact on the rest of the program. The 747-400 was the first wake up call. A few months after entering service, Scandinavian Airlines started offering a certificate to all people flying over the north pole as a kind of publicity stunt. They discovered the navigation computer couldn't handle 0,0 and it grounded the entire 747-400 fleet. I went to the Everett factory during the grounding and the place was cheek to jowl with 747s awaiting new firmware for the navigation system.

The 777 was Boeing's first fly by wire commercial aircraft and the amount of electronics on the plane exploded. My group went from 200 to 1500 people just to test all the new electronics. Upper management who all got where they were from shuffling money or bending metal suddenly were faced with a whole new set of challenges they had never thought about in their career. Suddenly this group of oddball test people became a major budget item and the schedule for the flight management computer became one of the most critical to the entire project.

Various systems in the engines have been run by small microprocessor systems for almost 30 years, but these were usually small processors which only did a few tasks and were fairly simple. Back in the 90s I had a need to look into the processors used on cars and something like 80% of them were based on the 8051, which is a very capable processor for embedded systems, but it was introduced in 1980. It was adequate for the sorts of simple tasks car processors were doing then, but even in 1995 they were behind the curve a long ways.

The most complex electronics in a car were mostly in the radio system and it's been that way up until recently. That system was isolated from all other systems on the car, so if it screwed up, it wasn't a safety problem. Now car companies are having to put more electronic sensors in cars and implement collision avoidance systems. Autonomously driven cars are also coming and everyone knows it. That will further require even more sophisticated and integrated electronics.

Cars will continue to have a lot of mechanical engineering, as building aircraft still requires bending a lot of metal. But the electronics will be ever more integrated into the systems of the car and traditional car companies aren't scrambling for help in this transition.

It's an interesting article. I'm surprised they aren't looking further north too. The Northwest had quite a bit of tech too. Intel has a major design facility in the Portland area. Xerox also has a major facility here. The Seattle area has Microsoft, but it also is the hub for cellular phone infrastructure development. A lot of smaller tech firms are around the area too. When I lived in Seattle I worked for 2 aerospace companies, 1 medical instrument company, a bus tracking firm, an imaging company, Microsoft, and I interviewed with quite a few other companies in different industries. There is a lot of electronics expertise there that could be tapped.

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