On September 30, 1955, police, ambulance, and fire crews arrived at the scene of a horrific two-car collision at a desert intersection in Cholame, California. Medics found that the driver of the Porsche, rising star James Dean, had been thrown from the car and killed instantly.

Following an investigation into the collision, it was determined that Dean hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. If he had, he most likely would’ve survived the crash. This high-profile death raised public awareness of the importance of seatbelts and ushered in the age of automotive safety.

Not much changed in the coming years in terms of new safety features in vehicles but more people did start to wear seatbelts. It was only when electronic control units (ECUs) started to become commonplace that manufacturers began to introduce safety features such as ABS, ESP, airbags, and more recently, lane-keeping assist, Forward Collision Warning (FCW) and other advanced driver assist systems (ADAS).

History of the ECU

General Motors introduced the first electronics system into a vehicle in 1978. By 1981 all GM vehicles contained an engine control unit that helped manage fuel use and power within the vehicle. In the early 1980s, hybrid digital systems became popular with other manufacturers, too, these were able to measure and process inputs from the engine to yield preset output values. This ROM system, as it was known, was one of the first tunable systems.

By 1991 almost all US and Japanese manufacturers has abandoned carburettors in favour of fuel-injection systems controlled by microprocessors.

Now, all ECUs use a microprocessor that processes engine inputs in real-time. They’re much more robust than other systems, especially as an engine begins to wear. As well as lending themselves well to tuning, these systems also enable more sophisticated safety features.

ECU-based safety technologies

Many vehicles now have a dedicated ADAS ECU that draws information from the vehicle’s cameras, lidar and radar systems, and inertial measurement units, as well as map data. This enables various safety features, including:

  • Lane-keeping assist
  • Blindspot warning
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Hill descent control
  • Lane change assistance

How to safely create an ECU

In order to power these advanced safety features, an ECU needs to be safe in itself. In 2014, for example, there was an incident where a software defect caused unintended acceleration with drivers unable to apply the brakes.

In order to avoid similar issues that could impact the safety of a vehicle, it’s important that software is thoroughly tested. With more than 100 million lines of code and interdependencies that span every single vehicle system, this is too much for a human developer to work on alone. The use of artificial intelligence in the testing process is vital when it comes to obtaining 100% test coverage in order to uncover potential defects.

It’s also important for developers to understand how each function in the software relates to one another. For example, a small change or update to the software controlling the braking system will affect more than how the car stops during normal driving — it’ll also impact ABS, emergency braking, and even adaptive cruise control, as all these systems are intertwined.

One of the main conclusions from an investigation performed by the Barr Group that led to the creation of a safety standard was thattesting is not enough to establish safety”. Today, we understand that even these standards are needed to be enhanced.

Line-of-Code Intelligence is an AI-based tool that maps complex automotive software systems in order to understand the interdependencies of functions that might otherwise seem unrelated. This helps developers create safer ECUs from which to run advanced driver assistance features.

Regulating these complex systems

In 2011, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) created ISO 26262. This framework helps to identify the potential risks of software and hardware failure in a vehicle. As part of this, there are specific Automotive Safety Integrity Levels (ASILs) that can be assigned to a safety requirement and its potential hazards. These are determined by a series of classifications based on the likelihood of a hazardous event, the severity of a potential injury, and the controllability of a driver to prevent or mitigate that injury.

Depending on those factors, the safety requirement is given an ASIL ranging from A to D. The most safety-critical systems are ASIL D, and these have the most stringent testing requirements.

The latest version of ISO 26262 was released in 2018 and extended the scope from passenger cars to all road vehicles. Automakers were quick to adopt it in order to make their driver assistance systems as safe as possible.

Automotive safety has come a long way since James Dean’s tragic crash, but there’s still a way to go to ensure modern systems are as safe as can be. If you’d like to explore more about how artificial intelligence can improve automotive safety, find out more about Aurors Labs’ technology here.