Why software-defined car signals a paradigm shift


With its connectivity, advanced driver safety systems and consumer-centric ethos, the software-defined car is poised to bring about dramatic change within the automotive industry. 

Automakers, traditionally at the core of automotive technology, must now be prepared to integrate into a bigger ecosystem, with technology giants synonymous with computer manufacturing, internet search engines, and mobility as a service (MAAS) leading the charge in investment and innovation.

How will the new technologies and architectures in the software-defined car, and the shifting topology of the supply chain, cause disruption within the automotive industry? 

The quantity and complexity of electronic devices used in cars expand with each new generation. A typical vehicle built in 2000 had approximately 10 processors and featured a few thousand lines of code. Fast forward 20 years, and today’s cars have about 45 processors with hundreds of millions of lines of code. 

In the traditional vehicle architecture, with these devices connected by copper, the wiring loom becomes hugely complex and represents a high proportion of the vehicle build cost. It’s fair to say that automotive production has been evolving in this way for the last 100 years or so. For a vehicle designed using a traditional architecture, we’ve reached a ceiling of capability. 

The software-defined vehicle represents a radical, even disruptive, departure from this ethos, separating the hardware from the software – what we call abstraction — and moving away from the “flat” architecture traditionally seen in conventional vehicle design. 

The software-defined car will feature two parallel architectural changes, namely zones and domains. Three or four zones are likely, with control units merged and centralized into high-powered computers. Wiring becomes simpler in a zonal approach, and the software environment more scalable and flexible with domains connected by automotive ethernet, accessed via domain controllers. The software is easily upgradeable by centralized over the air (OTA) updates and efficiently supports the user-defined vehicle. 

Use cases can be made virtual, and the real-time requirements of safety systems with guaranteed response times (a design imperative) assured. Using machine learning and AI in such systems yields more human-like responses than the conventional software code’s “if-then-else” nature. Here, secure vehicle-to cloud connectivity becomes increasingly important — relying on the seamless integration of different ecosystems. In this instance, technological disruption is not only the emergence of specific new hardware platforms but also the convergence of several technologies and methodologies.

Features such as ADAS, further enhanced by artificial intelligence and machine learning, bring the horizon closer for Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy, the driver for much of this advancement. Hardware abstraction enables the hardware to be interchangeable, allowing new entrants to enter the automotive arena, be they tech giants or new startups. 

The product lifespan will be lengthened, too, as a vehicle’s feature set is extended and optimized through over the air updates post-point of sale (POS). They could create new revenue streams and business models from the sale of applications and driver data captured via analytics.

Most incumbent automakers have a long history and have grown into enormous corporations. They have set procedures, staff who are trained following these methods, and complex supply chains geared to compliment them. The shift toward software-defined vehicles will require a fresh approach to vehicle development and adjustment to the relationship between manufacturers and Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers. For example, an automaker could choose to work directly with a Tier 2 supplier such as NXP. 

As this shift gains speed, NXP has expanded its own software team to 700 from 30 people in 2008, and created new automotive platforms, with scalable solutions for the connected vehicle’s systems.

At the same time, a few automakers are investing in proprietary vehicle operating systems and are considering licensing them to other manufacturers. To do this requires significant investment on their part and a high degree of corporate agility, an approach that may not suit all automakers. 

Tech giants are also investing and innovating in various spheres of the automotive arena. Some provide familiar operating systems for connected in-vehicle infotainment systems, which aim to give the driver the same interface and application ecosystem as they are used to on their smartphones.

Others are focusing on developing autonomous cars. The stakes are high, but the rewards are clear: An autonomous self-driving vehicle working 24/7 as a taxi would be of huge benefit to a company whose primary focus is mobility as a service, as would mass deployment of a particular infotainment operating system. 

A classically designed vehicle will have a value and a feature set at its optimum at the point of sale, rather like a traditional mobile phone. In a software-defined vehicle, applications and operating systems can be upgraded and enhanced throughout the vehicle’s life via OTA updates, like those of a smartphone. It allows a certain amount of customization and optimization for the user and keeps the vehicle’s safety features updated. 

The software-defined vehicle heralds a new age in cooperation and innovation, where incumbent automakers and Tier 1 and 2 suppliers will work alongside tech giants. Though such cooperation represents a perhaps-difficult paradigm shift, we can move closer to true safety and autonomy by harnessing these behemoths’ years of investment in software innovation. 

And by closing the loop on customer satisfaction through analytics, drivers will benefit with better functionality, experiences and safety. As we push toward Level 4 and even Level 5 autonomy, tech companies such as NXP and others, with their expertise in security, software and scalable hardware platforms, will play a significant role in the automotive future. 

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