Software Defined Vehicles will Give Us the Brainiac Car

It wasn’t that long ago in our history when automobiles ran purely on their mechanical components.
With the introduction, several decades ago, of basic computers to control fuel flow, the humble car started to become ever more driven by electronics. These days, even in the most basic models, software programs are at the heart of the machine’s operation. Without good software, a modern vehicle would barely make it out of the driveway, if at all.
In many ways, then, a 21st century automobile is a moving software platform and, given the rapid pace of change in all aspects of the software world, it can sometimes be challenging for the more traditional automakers to keep pace. It can even be difficult for the best and most experienced coders in the world.
Scott J. McCormick, president of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association (CVTA), points out that recent-model cars have over 100 million lines of code, compared to a long-haul Boeing Dreamliner commercial airplane with a mere four million. “There is a well understood ratio of 1 bug for every 4,000 lines of code regardless if this is medical code, auto code, machine generated code, etc.” he added. “That means for 100 million lines of code there could be 25,000 bugs – ones that could cause operational issues or possibly even kill you!”
Considering that extremely narrow margin of error, it’s obviously imperative for carmakers to ramp up their software game to the point where it is flawless. Have they been doing a good job of this? “Some better than others, but generally speaking no,” said Hemant Sikaria, CEO of Californian connected vehicle services company Sibros. “Case in point, we’re seeing record-setting levels of electronic component and software-related recalls and can expect this to increase for the foreseeable future.”
Losing Control
Many of the automakers that have been in the game for many years have been slow to adapt to the new software reality. That’s partially owing to tradition, and partially to worries of diminished importance. “OEMs are still very closed in fear of losing control of the vehicle experience, which slows down innovation,” said research analyst Maite Bezerra of global tech market advisory firm ABI Research.
As with many facets of technology in our world, it’s the more adaptable operators that are adjusting best to the vehicle’s transition into a moving software platform. Often, such companies have organized their software operations effectively and given them a high degree of priority. “Companies that have done well in this transition have software across the entire organization centralized and operating with a software mindset,” said Sikaria. “This means everything starts with software then moves on to hardware and mechanical components. It also includes the ability to make hardware decisions that reduce software complexity and make it easier to scale functionality in the future, which ultimately has a cost benefit over the long term.”
However, this software-first mindset isn’t necessarily a natural instinct for a carmaker that has grown its business on producing, say, gearshifts and axels. The usual move here, then, is to find a reliable third party to supply software know-how and/or solutions. This is already a common practice in the industry, and for good reason. “OEM partnerships are driving huge customer perceived value.  Partnerships speed innovation and increase revenue, improve time to market and increase competitive value,” said the CVTA’s McCormick.
Yet, with the growing importance of software in nearly every facet of a vehicle’s operation, not to mention the autonomous future promised to us, there are only going to be more lines of code, and deeper complexity. That’s why software solutions providers are becoming more specialized in their offerings. So, it’s critical for an automaker not only to be open to partnerships but to numerous partnerships that harvest the best available expertise in each facet of hardware.
With these set up, what kind of future should carmakers be driving towards? Another way of asking this is, what can we expect from the millions more lines of code that will help operate our cars? “Firstly, connectivity technologies will cease to be incorporated into the infotainment domain, and will be integrated into a dedicated connectivity domain controller,” said ABI Research’s smart mobility and automotive principal analyst James Hodgson. “Software defined functions will need to be remotely maintained or possibly upgraded throughout the vehicle lifecycle, broadening connected car applications outside of infotainment and into other vehicle domains, including active safety, powertrain etc.”
Number two is scalability. “This OTA trend will drive an increase in ‘headroom’ in each of the vehicle domains,” Hodgson added. “Therefore, automakers are increasingly opting to equip their vehicles with processors with excess capacity at point of sale, with a view to monetizing these models over their lifecycle through periodic [OTA] updates.”
Integration, scalability, headroom… these are all important software concepts. So yes, our cars in the future will operate increasingly sophisticated and interrelated systems. We’ll all be driving big, powerful brains on wheels, essentially.

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