It’s kind of a fairy tale: the story of how thyssenkrupp's E/E (electrical and electronics) competence center was founded in Budapest. A quarter of a century ago, in the spring of 1998, three doctoral students from Budapest University of Technology and Economics were tasked by the steering business of thyssenkrupp: they should program servo algorithms and safety functions for electrical steering systems. The connection between the automotive supplier and the university had come about through personal contacts. At that time, the portfolio of the steering specialist from Liechtenstein did not yet include electrical power steering systems – and software development was still in its infancy in the then Krupp Group at the end of the 1990s. Just a few weeks later, they started to work together with their new colleagues from Eschen. The first prototype began operating in a test vehicle in December of the same year. A modified desktop computer served as the control unit, and the steering wheel could be moved with the mouse.
The first project was so promising that the university founded a Research & Development Institute for Electrical Power Steering Systems (EPS) as early as 1999. Five years later, the developers presented a steering system with its own control unit (ECU) and implemented the first processes for professional software development. In 2007, the Institute's 70 highly qualified employees joined the newly established thyssenkrupp competence center in Hungary. Series production of the electrical power steering for the BMW X3 began just three years later.
For Marc de Bastos Eckstein, CEO of thyssenkrupp's automotive business in Hungary, having been founded as a research institute is still an important part of the company's self-image today: "We didn't come about as a low-cost assembly location in Eastern Europe, but because we developed skills that didn't exist elsewhere in the Group." Close cooperation with the university in Budapest is a top priority to maintain the character as a center of brainwork: cooperation agreements are in place for joint research work and further training activities relating to automotive systems, lecture series, support for diploma theses and internships. Similar agreements also exist with the universities in Debrecen and Veszprém.
It is only on the basis of this expertise that is has been possible to develop highlights such as a proprietary EPS control unit software, including our own AUTOSAR basic software – as well as a own EPS ECU hardware design. Besides that, new patents are filed every year for state-of-the-art technologies, including fault-tolerant, redundant steering systems with a failure rate of 10 FIT (failures in time) – which means maximum one safety critical error in 100 million working hours. Patents have also been registered for cybersecurity measures and over-the-air updates.
Today, the Budapest site with its more than 1200 colleagues in the E/E development center for software and hardware is unique within the thyssenkrupp Group. And multi award-winning to boot: winner of "Company of the Year" in Hungary in 2016, "R&D Investor of the Year" in 2019. The new premises in the South Buda Business Park, which began to be used at the end of 2021, won the "Office of the Year" award in recognition of their modern and worker-friendly design. Within 24 years, the nucleus of the startup trio has developed into a network with seven locations, employing more than 2800 people in research and production.
"More than 15 million vehicles are now driving on the road with EPS steering systems running the software we developed," says Eckstein, referring to the successes of the E/E competence center in Hungary. "Currently, we are looking at future technologies such as steer-by-wire as well as technologies for autonomous driving. We're also heavily involved in virtual testing to accelerate our development processes further."
Close interaction with thyssenkrupp Steering is part of everyday work. Eschen is where the direct interface to the customer is located, and it is there – in cooperation with the OEMs – that trends are crystallized and then translated into code in Budapest. Marc Eckstein: "Nowhere in the car is the interaction between driver and machine as pronounced as in the steering. The first EPS systems that emerged were primarily intended to feel like a hydraulic system. Today, we have the chance to completely redesign the steering feel of the next generation. With steer-by-wire, any steering feel can be created without being constrained by the mechanical linkage. OEMs define what they want the driver to feel. Our steering feel SW stack provides such a wide range of tunings, that we can implement virtually any brand-specific steering feel."
The demands placed on the steering system are likely to change again soon: this is because the steering experience is already becoming less significant in vehicles with semi-autonomous Level 3 functions. Marc Eckstein: "In Level 4 vehicles, it's no longer the feel that will be decisive, but the result. For the users of autonomous vehicles, driving themselves is not particularly important – for example, because they have other things to do, because they are tired, or possibly because they trust the driving abilities of the vehicle more than their own. Above all, they want to be as little aware of the steering as possible. But of course, there will still be people who like to drive simply for the joy of taking the wheel themselves, and we need to pay attention to the right driving experience so that driving can be as much fun as it is today."
Autonomous driving places special demands on the software. This means it is necessary to develop the steer-by-wire function with a precisely integrated level of safety, and to determine the optimal redundancies to ensure that the vehicle can still be controlled under all circumstances. In emergency situations, the steering can also be replaced by other functions such as torque vectoring by brakes or engines. But it doesn't stop with the steering: in the context of complete Vehicle Motion Control systems, redundancies are included via the control of all vehicle movements about the longitudinal, transverse and vertical axes. This also includes components such as electrical braking systems, the suspension with spring and damper systems, and self-steering rear axles.
Electrification is also having a direct impact on trends in electrical steering systems. Because the front axle load of vehicles is also increasing sharply, more and more powerful EPS systems need to be used. At the same time, the energy efficiency of the system has a direct impact on the range of the vehicle, which is why OEMs pay particular attention to this aspect. After all, there is also a greater focus on noise reduction than in vehicles with internal combustion engines – since other noise sources are eliminated.
Likewise, the rapid development of new E/E architectures poses a challenge. What is involved is faster communication protocols with greater bandwidth, organization of functional interfaces or implementation of prioritized vehicle functions with the right level of integrated safety. However, developers also have to deal with the question of how over-the-air functions can be reconciled with the requirement for maximum cybersecurity.
After almost a quarter of a century, the trends of the future are firmly anchored in the competence center's everyday business: The shift towards agile software development is already in full swing. Advantage: in traditional development processes, updates are only released for testing every two to three months, but this now happens every 14 days in pilot projects. József Varga, head of the Project Management Office: "What this means is we set up a development process at an early stage along the lines that more and more customers are demanding these days."
The goal of the agile method is to provide the customer as early as possible with software that is not yet fully developed, but ready for operation, so that it can be continually optimized at more frequent, shorter intervals. Two prerequisites in particular are essential features of agile development methods: a high level of interactive communication within the development teams, and virtual testing. The continuously running simulations provide results much faster than analog bench testing. At the same time, the mindset of all team members must allow for progress in the smallest increments with many repetitions – and accept that there is no classic plan that determines how the software will be developed.
József Varga: "Agile methods enable us to respond to requirements that arise during validation much faster in the development process. In this way, not only do we avoid risks and undesirable developments, but we can also achieve results faster. Our goal is to expand agile projects and increase output with weekly or even daily deliverables. At the same time, we are improving the quality of the software and identifying redundancies in the various process steps at an early stage." The competence center has repeatedly made its expertise in this area available to other areas of the Group, and is also available to support other sectors. The Hungarian software developers are particularly proud that they have been able to step into this role over recent years.