Over a week ago I attended the SAE Convergence conference in Detroit , where I helped demonstrate Synposys's vHIL (virtual hardware-in-the-loop) tool. I showed a virtual model of a Freescale microcontroller (the Automotive Safety Integrity Level [ASIL D]-certified MPC5643L Leopard ) running a gear-shift software application and connected to a transmission/vehicle model done in Simulink. This demo nicely illustrates, without being too complex, the value of virtual prototyping for automotive applications.
I was amazed by the reaction of many people, ranging from engineers to directors, who saw the demo. They could not believe that simulating their hardware system running their field software, on a regular PC, was at all possible. The demo was much closer to real development work than they were expecting when they looked at our virtual prototyping sign–most likely curious about how virtual prototypes are applicable to their development needs. Their reaction was very surprising to me since this technology has been around for about a decade and many companies have successfully adopted it as part of their design process. But then it struck me that the term virtual prototyping is actually not new in the automotive domain but is linked to physical simulation using CAD tools (see the abstract on a 1996 conference paper produced by a Fraunhofer Institute “Virtual prototyping examples for automotive industries”). As the paper says, “In the automotive industries, CAD and CAE systems are widely used. This provides a good basis for virtual prototyping.”
Synopsys's virtual prototyping tools target software engineers (doing development, integration, and test of complete software stacks on complex microcontrollers or electronic control units) and not hardware or mechanical engineers using CAD tools. So, is the usage of the term virtual prototyping incorrect to describe what we do? I don't believe it is, but it may be the wrong term to catch the attention of the automotive software community.
However, I believe that software engineers start to realize that writing software for an embedded system as complex and with safety-critical requirements as the ones found in today's and future cars, is not just about compilers and debuggers anymore. The interdependencies between the software and the hardware/electrical/mechanical parts of a car are growing so quickly that the only way to achieve the timeline and quality goals is to develop with them “in-the-loop.” The future is mechatronic co-development including the embedded software. And I believe virtual prototyping is a good term to describe it.
Victor Reyes is currently a technical marketing manager in the System Level Solutions group at Synopsys. His responsibilities are in the area of virtual prototyping technology and tools with special focus on automotive. Victor Reyes received his MsC and PhD in electronics and telecommunication from University of Las Palmas, Spain, in 2002 and 2008 respectively. Before joining Synopsys, he held positions at CoWare, NXP Semiconductors, and Philips Research.