SDX: the software-defined car

Software-defined radio (SDR) is a long-established technology dating back at least to the mid-1980s. Yet now it's back in the limelight owing to the desire of carmakers to include increasing amounts of features into their infotainment systems.

In February, Continental unveiled an automotive SDR platform. The progressive vehicle radio platform allows for the control of numerous individual functions on one processor.

"The product range we wanted to cover was high-definition radio to multimedia. We saw more opportunities with SDR," says Abdul Haliq, a project leader at Continental and responsible for all next-generation platforms.

There are two advantages to letting software define radio functions, he says. First, it allows Continental to provide radio systems that can be changed via software to meet any standard throughout its global footprint – except for Sirius XM's proprietary standard.

Second, it reduces the number of hardware components in the system, reducing cost and weight. Continental's platform weighs around 700 grams (24.7oz).

The product release followed Qualcomm's announcement at Consumer Electronics Show 2016 of the Snapdragon 820 Automotive processor family, its latest generation of system-on-chips (SoC). The product family includes tuneX software-defined radio tuner chips and the Atlas infotainment SoC. Nakul Duggal, vice-president of product management for Qualcomm, says Snapdragon represents an upgradeable module that separates the lifecycle of fast-moving electronics in the car from slower-moving electronics.

"The car is a platform with many different domains," Duggal says. Qualcomm looks at the domains of safety/diagnostics and consumer-facing services as different layers with different requirements. Each has a significant amount of software that will need to be upgraded over time. Decoupling software from hardware make those upgrades much easier.

The software-defined car

Mahbubul Alam, CTO of the Movimento Group, has begun talking about the software-defined car, or SDC, that is, "letting the car’s function be defined by software components that stitch together the environmental sensors, safety systems, mechanical linkages, and visual interfaces to build a vehicle where the function can be redefined after it has shipped." Movimento provides software update functionality for automotive carmakers via a gateway that includes analytics for vehicle performance and services.

Nvidia and Delphi have also been talking about SDC for quite some time; Delphi began developing SDR chips with NXP Semiconductors in 2012.

Alam notes that, aside from using software to define and change functions of the car, software inevitably includes bugs that will need to be patched, and SDC, makes that much more efficient. Moreover, in addition to redefining functionality to meet different standards or to suit consumers in different regions, the SDC approach allow automakers to fine-tune the performance of a vehicle and its systems after it's left the factory.

"You need continuous improvement for a vehicle [that's already on the road] just as phones are not perfect from day one," Alam says.

Software-defined everything

The software-defined approach is the way of the future, according to Luca De Ambroggi, principal analyst for automotive semiconductor at IHS Technology. "I see the electrical systems in the car becoming like a powerful PC. And, like with a PC, if you want to run an application, you download and install the software. Your hardware doesn't change."

Of course, car owners won't have as much flexibility in what they install in their cars as they do with their phones or laptops. Infotainment apps will be limited to those vetted by carmakers, who will also dictate updates to the software that runs critical systems.

Ambroggi says that the auto industry is moving toward software-defined everything because the complexity of cars has become unwieldy. Software-defined systems will be easier to upgrade. Instead of having to swap out hardware, consumers will be able to upgrade or patch their cars by downloading new software.

He notes that this approach also allows the carmaker to scale from low-end models to pricier lines via software instead of hardware. They can simply add more features to the higher-end mode. "This also reduces the logistical problem of pricing a different system to different regions," he says.

In fact, according to Alam, the SDX approach could allow for new business models. For example, car-sharing services could allow members to store their preferences in the cloud and then download them to the vehicle. He's talking about not just streaming music or apps but the way the car drives or how much horsepower it has.

Say you've bought a car with 250 horsepower, he suggests. With SDX, the engine could be tuned down or up. "Now, the OEM has the ability to offer, 'If you want to have up to 350 horsepower, it's going to cost $250 (£177),'" he says.

Consumers may be reluctant to pay much for apps in the car but a better driving experience – when and how we want it – may open our wallets.

How those updates will be accomplished will also be within the control of the carmaker. Continental's Haliq believes that, eventually, all software will be upgraded over-the-air, the so-called SOTA model. "Different car manufacturers have different models," he says. "Some ask us for a server-based solution, which we have, and some of our customers have their own server-based solution and want to have the head unit ready for software-over-the-air."

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