Automotive Electrical Connectors: Standards & Types

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Over the last century, automobiles have become part of our daily lives. Each automobile is made up of thousands of components, and for our cars to perform, they all need to work as well. Not only can a part failure lead to an inconvenient breakdown, but it can also put drivers and passengers in danger and lead to costly recalls for the manufacturer. Automobile components must operate reliably, and they need to do so in a wide range of different temperatures and environments.

Automotive Grade Electrical Connectors: Unseen but Critical to a Car's Function

Given their critical responsibility for our safety and overall well being, all automotive electrical components must be able to withstand freezing cold, blazing heat, and uneven terrain. It’s no surprise that the electronics that make up your vehicle require extensive testing, including the connectors and cables that snake unseen through modern vehicles.

Maintaining Quality Automotive Components

Manufacturers like Ford, Toyota, GM, and many others “make” cars by gathering parts from a wide variety of suppliers and assembling them into a finished product. While these manufacturers are technically dependent on suppliers to maintain their reputations, the manufacturers make up a massive amount of the market share. This advantage lets companies like Toyota hold their suppliers to stringent quality standards.

To learn more about general requirements for connectors approved for automotive use, a great place to start is the USCAR2-7 specification by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the United States Council for Automotive Research. This nearly 80-page document gives extensive – and precise – test information.

Tests listed in this document include:

  • Systematically stressing the connector mechanically

  • Vibration testing

  • Subjecting the components to immersion in automotive fluids and even salt water. The specific solution would depend on whether the connector is sealed.

  • Thermal cycling. The connector may perform as expected at room temperature, but these tests evaluate whether the device will function over extreme temperatures.

  • Electrical resistance. To pass this test, a connector must exhibit a 500 M Ohm resistance between connector sections at an applied voltage of 500 VDC.

Of course, even an extensive and detailed document like USCAR2-7 can’t cover every situation. The document notes that many cases require a different testing regiment, which could be more or less stringent than what the specification prescribes. In these circumstances, an Authorized Person steps in as the final authority. It is this person’s responsibility to record any modifications to normal procedures. Presumably, manufacturers could refer to this information before choosing to accept the components.

It’s important to have some context about each connector’s specific application to ensure that each part undergoes adequate testing. For this purpose, component manufacturers define classes for the following variables:

  • Temperature (T1-T5)

  • Seal (S1-S3)

  • Vibration (V1-V5)

A component with a high ranking will need to pass much more extensive testing than one with a lower ranking. Lower rankings apply to components used in a car’s passenger areas, where excessive moisture is generally not a concern. Higher rankings will apply to in-engine compartment connectors and the like, where extremes of temperature and moisture will occur. Vibration ratings range from a similar light-duty V1 specification, all the way to V5 automotive connectors. V5 ratings might apply to unsprung components attached directly to an automobile’s wheel. These components experience the constant road vibrations that are nearly eliminated by a proper suspension. These tests aim to ensure that automotive components will generally last for 200,000 miles of hard use and will include millions of bumps, vibrations, and temperature variations along the way.

Automotive Standards in Electronic Components 

Testing can help ensure the highest quality automotive components, but what are the consequences if a part fails? If the connector comes loose on your radio system or DC power jack, you’ll likely be annoyed but unharmed. If, however, there’s a malfunction in your car’s airbag deployment system, the results could be much more serious; the airbag may fail to deploy or could deploy incorrectly or at the wrong time. These dangerous incidents are quite rare, though even one malfunction or error that leads to tragedy can damage an auto manufacturer’s reputation. To protect their customers and their own bottom line, manufacturers undergo a systematic risk assessment for their vehicles.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has outlined the risk assessment process, and automotive vehicles are covered under ISO 26262. We didn’t review this spec for this article, but both component and automobile manufacturers are likely very familiar with it.

When you hear devices described as “automotive connector,” or “automotive grade,” you now know that earning those titles meant passing a wide range of tests and meeting stringent standards. Automotive suppliers have the resources to verify that each component meets SAE as well as ISO standards, likely with additional plant inspections and other requirements by an authorized person, as appropriate. Consumers don’t have the same resources and industry connections, so buying connectors from a trusted source is incredibly important. For your car to function correctly, its connectors must do the same.

In the exciting world of automotive technology, it’s easy to overlook just how important connectors can be. In the event of a malfunction or part failure, manufacturers and consumers can open themselves up to headaches, lawsuits, and danger. Whether you’re designing an engine or replacing parts on your car, procuring high-quality components and connectors is critical. Automotive components should live up to their automotive-grade specification, even if it comes with some additional upfront cost.

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