Forget custom rims. Hyundai is pimping rides with Ethernet

Hyundai Motor and Broadcom(s brcm) are working together to build Ethernet networks into vehicles, bringing the world’s most popular local networking technology to the tight confines of the automobile.

Using a variant of Ethernet that Broadcom has developed specifically for cars, Hyundai hopes to replace older, slower data networks used to connect infotainment and telematics components in vehicles. Hyundai also wants Ethernet to power the new wave of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) such as lane departure sensors and surround view cameras.

Why Ethernet? It’s fast, it’s cheap and it’s the standard used by billions of networked computing devices in the world today. Today’s cars contain a hodgepodge of networks based on different automotive standards. Control Area Network (CAN) systems handle everything from power steering to the critical drive-train communications between the engine computer and the transmission. Local Interconnect Network (LIN) systems handle simple electro-mechanical functions such as moving the power seats and toggling the cruise control.

All of those different isolated networks could be replaced with a single Ethernet network, simplifying the mess of the cabling and protocols needed to run the modern vehicle, said Kevin Brown, VP and GM of Broadcom’s PHY group. Broadcom has formed an organization called the One-Pair-Ether-Net (Open) Alliance Special Interest Group with the aim of furthering Ethernet’s automotive ambitions.

So far the group has attracted 81 members, including many of the heavyweights of the automotive industry: Ford Motor(s f), General Motors(s gm), Daimler, Honda(s hmc), BMW, Nissan and Volvo. In addition, the Alliance has garnered support from two of Broadcom’s competitors, Freescale (s fsl) and NXP(s nxpi). The current standards the group proposes can deliver up to 100 Mbps of capacity to share between a car’s hundreds of different subsystems. Eventually that number will scale to 1 Gbps, according to the Alliance.

An Ethernet fit for the highway

The “One-Pair” in the alliance’s name refers to the fact that the automotive version of Ethernet will use a single pair of unshielded wires in the network’s cabling, as opposed to the four pairs used by standard Ethernet. Brown said that configuration greatly shrinks the size of the cables themselves, making it much easier for automakers to cram these networks into the nooks and crannies of their vehicles.

Apart from the physical interface, there’s no difference between the Ethernet going to Hyundai’s future sedans and the Ethernet jack in the back of your PC or Wi-Fi router. Broadcom and other one-pair component makers will also be able to incorporate full-Ethernet ports into their switches, which would allow standard Ethernet cables to connect to the car, Brown said.

Don’t expect all of your cars varied networks to give way to a unified Ethernet system overnight, though. Automakers are still a bit a cautious about changing up the networks on their cars’ most sensitive and critical driving functions. Also, automakers keep many of their subsystems separate for a reason. They want to take no chances that a malware loaded into a vehicle’s infotainment dash system could somehow infect the computers controlling acceleration and braking.

For that reason the Alliance is focusing initially on non-critical connected car features, such as the infotainment, comfort control and ADAS systems, Brown said. But eventually Broadcom hopes that Ethernet will become the unifying network of the car. Virtual LAN technology could be used to wall off different subsystems from one another, but as connected car technologies become more sophisticated, those subsystems will need to communicate in some form.

Sensors won’t just warn drivers of dangers, they’ll cause the car to act, braking or accelerating away from potential accidents. As we enter the age of the autonomous car, navigation systems will start directing car engines rather than car drivers.

“In the future, these applications are going to blur the lines between infotainment and the drive control systems in our cars,” Brown said. Consequently all of those systems will need to be internetworked.

Though many automakers have joined the alliance, only two have made specific public commitments to use the technology. Hyundai hasn’t stated specifically which future vehicles will get the Ethernet upgrade. BMW, which chairs the Alliance, has promised an actual car. Its 2013 X5 sport utility vehicle will be the first to host an Ethernet network, which will control its 360-degree surround view parking system. Image sensors, all connected via Broadcom’s Ethernet, detect the relative distance of obstacles on all sides of the vehicle, allowing drivers to tuck their SUVs perfectly into tight spots.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Mopic; Ethernet photo courtesy of Flickr user Ryan Franklin