The growth electronics content in the modern car – whether internal combustion, EV, or HEV – is now an unstoppable reality, it seems. The electronics span engine control, myriad sensors of the car's internal operation, ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems), multiple cameras, and wireless connectivity including satellite radio, Wi-Fi, cellular voice/data, and more.
This representation of possible scenarios for an ADAS-equipped car shows some of the possibilities, but can't capture some of the long-term challenges. (from Crosslink Solutions Ltd)
Let's be honest: beside the presumed benefits, electronics vendors like it since it gives them more components to sell; car vendors like it since they can charge more up-front for these high-margin functions and also have a likely repair income stream in the years ahead (no need to fool ourselves here – things will fail); and buyers seem to like it, since they are buying the vehicles loaded with more features in a given car-company's lineup. What's not to like?
Or maybe It's not a matter of liking it or not. The problem is that much of the electronics industry runs products on a two-to-five year life cycle, while cars have a much longer lifetime. The average car in the United States is 11.5 years old; see “United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics” as well as this report from Automotive News. Further, we know that “average” is just that, and many vehicles will be older (and younger) than that. (Unlike many widely cited statistics which actually have large margins of error, auto-related data is quite accurate since cars are tracked carefully with publicized numbers at every stage of their life, and registered as well by their owners.)
We have two product-obsolescence cycles with very different periods, and the long-range implications which often not clear. A recent article ” What Happens When the Wheels Outlast the Wireless” in The Wall Street Journal did give one clue, however. It discussed how owners of certain BMW cars – some sold as recently as 2016 – will lose their roadside-assistance e wireless connection as AT&T discontinues its 2G service in 2017.
Among the owner “make good” options are a $300 voucher for BMW accessories, a $200 Visa gift card, or an expensive retrofit to newer cellular technology. We may like to think that downloaded software upgrades can patch over many problems, but software changes can't trick hardware into doing what systems can't support. Even analog- and power-relate components, which historically have had relatively long production lifetimes, feel the pressure from the fast-moving wireless world.
One argument is that this sort of on-going obsolescent is unavoidable and part of the deal when you sign on for technology in your vehicle. Perhaps that is a somewhat valid point. At the same time, with the waves of new technologies, advanced standards and their road maps, end-of-life shutdowns, and more, it sometimes may seem that someone is being taken for a ride (so to speak) or at least going on one they don’t fully understand. You might even argue that it is not different than Microsoft dropping support of Windows XP about ten years after its introduction, but I l think that's somewhat of a stretch.
It's one thing for vendors of individual components (ICs, passives) to the auto industry to assure ten or even fifteen years of product availability; that's become normal. But as car electronics branch out into services, how do you assure that the service will still be online after even a few years? The answer is you can’t – after all, we've all heard the horror stories of what happens when people store their life's photos with a cloud service, and that service goes out of business with little or no notice.
The imbalance between the relatively long life of products such as autos, industrial equipment, and even larger consumer products such as home appliances, as compared to the much-shorter cycle time of their underlying electronic building blocks, is a real dilemma. How end-product OEMs and component vendors deal with this split tells us how much “stuff” limps along in degraded operation, how much ends on the scrap heap due to an unavailable part or service, and if there is perhaps a market for bare-bones, low-tech products which provide basic functions and are easier to maintain for years. Perhaps there's a way to reconcile the difference with some sort of compromise, but I am not sure what that might look like.
Have you ever had a fairly new product with parts or associated service that soon went obsolete, or had its support terminated due to newer technology, thus forcing you to make some tough and unpleasant choices?