Unreliable Electronics Are the New Prince of Darkness

Emerging vehicle quality issues related to electronics are a clear and present threat to electrification.

Automotive E/E content, currently represents over 35% of an average ICE vehicle’s bill of material. It is expected to reach 50% by 2030 as more electronics-laden EVs enter production. (Yazaki)

Younger engineers may be unfamiliar with Joseph Lucas Ltd., the infamous Tier-1 supplier of British automotive electrical and electronic woes. Lucas helped institutionalize, fairly or not, the sub-par reliability reputations of British car and motorcycle OEMs. Jokes including “The Lucas lighting switch has three settings: Dim, Flicker, and Off” became part of the lore for dozens of classic marques. Those who lovingly restore Brit vehicles today refer to company founder Joe Lucas as “the Prince of Darkness.”

I once missed a reporting assignment in the mid-1980s because the lovely new Jaguar XJ6 in my driveway, on loan from the company’s press fleet, failed to start due to a Lucas-related malady. At least that’s where Jag PR put the blame. When a flatbed arrived to recover the car, the driver-side electric window regulator failed. Would a fire be next?

In truth, “The Prince” did make some genuinely robust stuff. But unfortunately for vehicle owners, Lucas’ product specs were typically determined by the OEMs’ ruthless cost-downs. And component reliability was at the mercy of poorly designed wiring, shoddily assembled connectors, heat and vibration.

Hopefully, past will not become present. The industry has entered an ominous new era of E/E-related vehicle issues, driven by the sheer breadth and complexity of software-defined vehicle electronics. Faster and faster development cycles play a role here. So do over-the-air updates. OTA has become rationale, in some cases, for less-than comprehensive initial testing and validation of software. I’m told that a new panacea, born in the consumer-electronics world, says: “Let’s get that new module out the door now. We’ll fix the glitch (i.e., driveability or functionality) later with OTA.”

I’m not convinced.

When I spoke recently with a veteran dealership service manager, he pointed to a new EV being prepped for delivery. “Electric vehicles,” he said, “have potential to cause more quality issues and headaches than any MG owner ever suffered back in the day.” There are few problems worse than mysterious, intermittent electrical issues, we agreed.

Since the 1970s, electronics have gone from about 5% of the bill of materials (BoM) in an average vehicle to over 35% and are projected to rise to over 50% by 2030, according to Statista. Meanwhile, overall vehicle quality has dropped to a 36-year low, reported J.D. Power in its latest survey of 2022 model-year vehicles. Problems per 100 vehicles (PP100) rose 11%, 18 PP100 worse than last year. And a troubling finding: Owners of battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles cited more problems in their vehicles when compared to owners of ICE-powered models.

Of course, the industry is only beginning to produce EVs in volume amidst labor and supply shortages. So perhaps it’s expected that new offerings – including the Audi E-Tron, Tesla Models X and Y, and the Volkswagen ID.4 – ranked poorly in the Power report. Their Achilles heel is complex electronics, the report said. All have a high rate of problems mostly in electronic and software-related areas.

Can this nascent, threatening trend be reversed? Craig Hillman, the director of software development at Ansys, posted a valuable blog on his company’s website titled Overcoming Automotive Electronics Reliability Engineering Challenges. In it, Hillman details the ‘multiple stress conditions’ that make autos perhaps the toughest E/E environment. No single solution yet exists for ensuring bulletproof-reliable electronics. But closer collaboration between Tier-1 designers and integrated-circuit creators, he counsels, is a good place to start. With so much invested in electrification (and automated-driving tech), the industry cannot tolerate another Prince of Darkness in its future.