The need for speed

Automakers and suppliers are putting the hammer down by speeding up production cycles to keep connected cars current but also to stay ahead of the consumer electronics curve as well as their auto industry competitors.

In recent years, many younger consumers have become more focused on the latest digital technologies and online media rather than the latest car models. Taking into account that every other month faster and better mobile devices become available and new disruptive digital services pop up to replace traditional ones, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. To appeal to this new consumer class of so-called digital natives the auto industry is making huge strides in the field of the connected car.
Last year Spanish telecommunications provider Telefonica projected that by 2020 almost all cars will have in-vehicle connectivity. Companies including Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen are investing record amounts into research and development of innovative services such as car-sharing, picture navigation and connectivity-enabled eco–conscious driving (see also PSA seven-year connected car deal with IBM.

These are services that customers are demanding, and which will be eagerly provided by competitors who are looking to consolidate their share in the growing connected car market.
Automakers are also joined by newcomers like Google and Apple who are naturally drawn to the business opportunities presented by the connected car. Unlike these two tech giants, the auto industry is bound to a more traditional and longer production cycle of the parts that make up their cars; not in the least because car companies have to adhere to high safety standards. But carmakers such as Audi are trying to keep pace with the digital age by reducing the production cycle from 6-8 years to a year or less. Last year the company introduced the next Modular Infotainment Platform (MIB-2), which consumers can find in the recently updated A6 and A7 model lines, at the Connected Car Expo in Los Angeles. MIB-2 is the successor of the MIB that was first introduced in the A3 models in 2013 (Europe) and 2014 (United States).

This modular system reduces the production cycle because it “sensibly divides rapidly evolving software and hardware components from systems that don’t need to change as frequently”, says Anupam Malhotra who is senior manager Connected Vehicles at Audi of America.
The MIB-2 system allows drivers to upgrade the software when updates are available, improving its functions. “The more rapidly evolving components include wireless technologies, voice recognition, graphics processors and user interface software. The components requiring less frequent changes include power supplies, radio and DVD/CD players,” explains Malhotra. By implementing a fully virtual cockpit with a digital dashboard in 2016 Audi circumvents even more production cycle issues by leaving out more hardware parts.

According to a 2014 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers this modular approach of hardware and software is the key to the success of the connected car: ‘Such a modular infotainment building set would allow for individual components to be updated through plug-and-play technologies several times during a car’s life cycle’.

Unlike clunky hardware based systems, the MIB-2 is easily updated. For example: when its NVIDIA processors become dated and newer ones are available, the system can simply download new software to bring them up to date.

“This dramatically reduces the time and expense of bringing new innovative services into the car,” Malhotra says. “This allows Audi to bring all-new functions to market in 12-to-24 month cycles. Some new services can be introduced even faster through over-the-air updates.”

Ford is tackling the production cycle a little differently. The company focuses on building technology that lets apps on smart devices do all the work. This way Fords communications connectivity system Sync becomes the centralized hardware framework for software from Blackberry, Apple and Microsoft as well as other third-party modular software.

Land Rover takes a similar approach with its InControl system. Vehicles operating with customised connected car apps from smart devices have an added advantage to extending the shelf life of car hardware and shortening the production cycle. Since most consumers have most of their life on their mobile devices, integrating their cars is only natural.

Volvo is trying to combine the best of both worlds with a modular approach for both its hardware and software car components. Its Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) provides a single chassis architecture with one basic engine and transmission for engineers to build upon. This modular chassis system debuted with the new XC90 SUV and allows Volvo to plug in new hardware as it comes to market. No need to halt production, the newest model can be outfitted with innovative tech as it rolls off the assembly line.

The same modular thinking inspires the software needed to run Volvo’s connected car, Martin Kristensson explains. The director, connectivity strategy, at Volvo adds: “Our touch-screen solution in our new SPA platform is built on ‘tiles’ – expandable for Navigation, Music, Telephony, and Apps – including the ones from third parties.”

This solution easily integrates software from companies like Apple and Google with that of Volvo, like its navigation system display Volvo Sensus. Kristensson also says: “Customers will be able to use the smartphone apps they desire in a convenient way, while we can focus on developing our unique, integrated services that are relevant to the driving experience as well as to the ownership of a car.”

For Volvo – “As one of the smaller global car manufacturers” – the aim is to reduce the production cycle and simultaneously get a competitive advantage in the premium segment, says Kristensson, adding, “…we will gradually introduce the possibility for our customers for OTA software upgrades and in the near future as well remote service diagnostics.”

Reducing the time of the production cycle can’t be done solely by the automakers; suppliers must be able to do the same. That is why Volvo works closely with suppliers “to find the optimised solutions for our reduced production,” says Kristensson without giving away its strategy.

“Audi has a very close and direct relationship with key technology partners such as NVIDIA and Google,” Malhotra of Audi explains. “We also have joint ventures, such as in Europe with Elektrobit for HMI and infotainment software. These relationships with our partners are best seen in the rapid advances Audi shows with our piloted driving systems, also commonly referred to as automated driving. Working collaboratively we reduced the computing power needed to handle piloted driving from hardware that filled the trunk of a car to a zFAS centralised processor a little larger than an iPad” (see Central car brain revealed by Audi).

This zFAS system will be the part of Audi’s drive to get fully autonomous cars on the market. Since Google is already aiming for 2020, shortening production cycles is a sensible move for the automotive industry. The innovations at Audi and Ford make clear that they are well on their way in terms of the need for speed, for consumers and themselves.

The car is evolving fast. Don't get left. Be at TU-Automotive Detroit this June.


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