DETROIT — More than two years before a new vehicle is built, General Motors engineers test the power steering, turn signals and driver-assist technology such as Super Cruise — all from a lab at its engineering hub here.
It’s made possible by GM’s new digital platform, which will be integrated into most of its vehicles by 2023. It debuted on the 2020 Cadillac CT5 and will be part of the upcoming Cadillac CT4 and redesigned Chevrolet Corvette, Suburban and Tahoe.
GM says the platform — referring to how all of a vehicle’s electronics are interconnected, not the underpinnings of the vehicle itself — is the backbone the company needs to enhance cybersecurity, increase data speeds, offer over-the-air updates and fulfill its commitment to building more electric vehicles. GM plans to launch 20 all-electric and fuel cell vehicles globally through 2023.
“This digital vehicle platform is required to pursue the aggressive electric vehicle future that GM is heading down,” said Gary Bandurski, executive director of global electrical components and subsystems.
The platform allows communication among a vehicle’s infotainment, connectivity and advanced safety features. It’s key to achieving GM’s goal of eliminating crashes, emissions and congestion.
A 100,000-square-foot electrical integration lab sits among the battery and infotainment centers at GM’s Tech Center in Warren, Mich. In one area is a harness verification frame, a network of electrical control units and wiring shaped for a specific vehicle.
Engineers can use it to confirm that basic electrical functions operate correctly, such as mirrors folding in, seats moving back and forth, and turn signals turning on and off.
“This is a very easy asset to be able to root-cause issues, find issues, resolve issues, confirm they are fixed before we actually build our first prototype,” said Mike Macciomei, electrical engineering group manager. “Projects are never going to be defect-free, but our goal is to make the properties test-ready … when they get shipped out.”
Engineers can resolve issues they encounter before the vehicle is built.
“We consider this our first-built launch vehicle,” said Bandurski. If a problem crops up, engineers take it just as seriously as one found right before launch.
“When something is wrong on this, all the lights go off,” Bandurski said. “Everybody’s running with a sense of urgency.”
Just 10 percent of a diagram of the digital platform fits on the wall of the lab. The wiring stretches between 1.5 and 2 miles on the next-generation full-size SUVs, compared with about 150 yards for a Chevrolet pickup in 1957. Back then, GM fit a diagram of the electrical architecture of the V-8 pickup on a single sheet of paper.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, GM used an electrical architecture to control basic features, including the ignition, radio, engine, power windows and seats, air conditioning and airbags.
In the 2000s, infotainment systems and more comfort and convenience features were added. The new platform can power electric and connected vehicles.
The electrical integration lab includes a full-system bench, which tests the functionality and interactions of vehicle technology, such as the cluster, shifter and power steering. An active-safety bench tests cruise control, adaptive park assist and side blind-spot alerts. The drive is projected on a screen with obstructions to test the technology. Testing capabilities before any sheet metal is stamped prevents digital and electrical issues down the line, Macciomei said.
“We have the ability to [implement] a program, go through all of our diagnostics, all of our learnings ahead of time,” said Jason Humitz, engineering group manager of global body, safety electronics and electrical architecture validation. “That streamlines the process rather than waiting for the items to get into manufacturing. We work all of those bugs out.”
The outgoing digital platform has been a “workhorse” for more than a decade, but as technology advances and consumers’ expectations evolve, “it’s run its course,” Bandurski said.
In the coming years, the new platform will help develop more powerful EVs, advanced active safety technology and more useful driver-assist features.
GM began developing the platform in 2014, using advancements in the military and aviation to help refine it since then.
“We had to examine an architecture that not only sets us up for today, but also enables us in the future,” said Humitz.
GM says the platform also positions it to be a leading full-line provider of over-the-air updates, similar to the software upgrades consumers download on their smartphones, and of advanced cybersecurity. It has an internally led validation process and a team of white-hat hackers — security experts who search for potential vulnerabilities — to find holes in its system.
“We are perpetually learning, working and trying to break our systems,” Bandurski said.