Automakers Seek Control in Connected Car Software

Automotive software is now seen as a primary differentiator for vehicles.

Some experts think it will become even more important if autonomous vehicles become available for ride hailing. Marques McCammon, vice-president of automotive at Wind River, asks: “How picky are you about which car picks you up when you call for an Uber or a Lyft? Not so much but the experience inside the car is important – things like whether there’s an odor or the driver’s behavior.”

In autonomous rides, he adds, “Those experiences will be software-defined.” In the meantime, over-the-air updates can be an alternative to recalls or mailing drivers USBs with new software.

Two-way OTAs

Over-the-air software updates are the low-hanging fruit in software management in the connected car and, for most automakers, it’s fruit that is yet to be picked.

Says Alex Oyler, head of car IT for SBD: “With one or two exceptions, automakers are just now really getting to experience some of the rewards and risks of integrating OTA updates.” Beyond fixing software, Tesla has proven that delivering new features over the air can delight car owners and create buzz. However, it was sued in early August by an owner who alleged that a software update cut the range of the 2014 Model S. Tesla said it was rolling out waves of updates to try to address the problem.

Such gaffes could be greatly reduced with two-way communications from connected cars, according to Rick Kreifeldt, executive director of the eSync Alliance. The eSync System is a specification for cloud servers, an in-vehicle client and multiple in-vehicle agents that will let alliance members develop products and services to let carmakers manage and update software, based on technology from Excelfore.

“To get ahead of recalls, you need to look at how devices are performing in the field”, he says. “The trend will be toward being on top of the performance of in-vehicle devices. That will change how the industry is working today, help out with recalls and make the vehicle safer.” While the big focus is currently on software management, the ability to manage and make use of data from the car grows in importance, according to Scott Frank, vice-president of marketing for Airbiquity.

Newer solutions should let automakers target specific data sets generated by specific ECUs within the vehicle, allowing them to dynamically change what data they want to export to the cloud for analysis. That would enable them to not only understand vehicle performance and address potential risks but also to develop new services consumers might want to purchase or share normalized data with insurers or other providers.

Kreifeldt says field conditions, everything from outside temperature to software incompatibilities with other installed devices or systems, can influence the performance of an update. Automakers can’t possibly evaluate every possible influence before a software release.

In April 2019, the eSync Alliance released specifications for Tier 1 suppliers to use. The idea is to create an open ecosystem, Kreifeldt says. “OEMs can do a multivendor solution; they don’t have to get all the pieces from one supplier. In the end, our goal is to get all the devices in the vehicle fully updatable and capable of providing data.”

Says Oyler: “There is a lot of opportunity in the OTA space, and an appetite among automakers to standardize elements of that value chain. An area of focus for standardization would be in elements to build that in-vehicle software. Initiatives like AUTOSAR are a good thing for automakers.”

Own the software

While vendors with OTA solutions abound, carmakers are looking to beef up their internal IT capabilities, Oyler says. “A big area of focus for OEMs is in-house development and being able to build out their own IT systems, instead of writing a set of business requirements and handing it off to a vendor. Every OEM is strategically looking at elements of connectivity and autonomous cars and making crucial decision about what to build themselves. Where that line falls is different for everybody.” Oyler sees the ability to remotely update software or configure the car as a core enabler of automakers’ next-generation digital strategies.

On flip side, he notes that Tier 1s, notably Bosch and Harman, are making big investments in their own consulting shops to stave off competition from the likes of Apple and Google that provide full-stack solutions that don’t require integration by a Tier 1.”The idea of having vendor software in your vehicle responsible for managing downloads and updates, having that be proprietary, is something OEMs don’t care for,” according to Oyler. He adds that there still will be room for solutions from Tier 1s and vendors but they’ll have to be compatible with whatever standards emerge.

These shifts illustrate a tension between automakers and suppliers, says McCammon. “The tension is about owning the experience with the consumer. Owning the software is a critical part to that because, for OEMs, the value proposition and the means to create that connection will be wholly or partially software driven. If the software is owned and managed by someone else, that means you are trusting someone else to be the broker of your relationship with your biggest asset.”

New architectures needed

Carmakers are moving to consolidate functions into ECUs instead of adding a new control unit for each new feature, notes John Tuttle, vice-president of engineering for Airbiquity. “The auto industry is moving from distributed parts to a fewer number of higher-powered computing devices to handle groups of functionalities,” he says.

At the same time, they’re moving away from hard-coded ECUs to those with software that can be changed after installation. That’s going to lead to more problems, however, Tuttle says, as automakers struggle to manage variations in parts, software and updates among individual vehicles. If one vehicle reports problems, the manufacturer needs to know what software was updated and when.

To really take advantage of advanced software management tools, carmakers ultimately need to change their architectures. “The fast followers are implementing the next generation of vehicle architecture now,” Oyler says. “One of the primary roadblocks of bringing over-the-air updates to different components like the ADAS module or the powertrain is having an in-vehicle architecture that supports the security requirements. If you don’t implement the right security controls, OTA is just one giant risk area.” New architectures are easier to implement in electric vehicles, he adds.

McCammon identifies five core capabilities of software that will give automakers true control of their software: the ability to abstract, consolidate, reuse, update and extrapolate. By extrapolation, he means borrowing wisdom and best practices from other industries. For example, the traditional IT industry has successfully used network function virtualization for more than a decade, while the aerospace industry has consolidated ECUs in a way that’s repeatable and safe.

Says McCammon: “There’s a lot of not-invented-here syndrome. A lot of the questions we’re asking today, there’s a lot of similarities with things other industries have done 20 years ago.”

That’s changing and for the better. “We see organizational changes coming and I think that will be big for all of us.”

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