Why It’s Important to Get on Board the Software-Defined Car

What’s already happened to smartphones and other devices will be disrupting the automotive market.

Pistons and powertrains absorbed all the attention of automotive engineers years ago, but today’s focus will increasingly be on the software driving the advanced electronics inside automobiles. Yes, this represents a major disruption, but like all significant evolutions, it also creates opportunities. Developments in what’s been called “the software-defined car” are moving like a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport in several automotive sectors, bringing new Silicon Valley thinking to Detroit.

Figure 1: Software updates will be made over-the-air to the new Software Defined Cars. Photo courtesy Movimento Group

Nobody would deny that today’s car is a rich hardware platform bristling with sensors and processors that rely on software. Graphical displays, touch screens, computer graphics, voice control—these are becoming the car’s interface, with electronic sensors and algorithms determining the entire driving experience to a wide extent. The software-driven features coming down the road are amazing; not just new auto infotainment apps, but completely new features like wholesale personalization, brand-new advanced driver-assistance features, extensions for car sharing, regional specific adaptations, car-to-home integration, new vehicle safety options, remote mobile control, new 4×4 drive modes and more.

Automakers Join OTA SW Update Bandwagon
The software-defined car must also be the software-connected car, with over-the-air (OTA) updates making sure that each automobile is running the latest, most effective code. OTA updates began— naturally—with Tesla’s Model S, but the concept has been speeding forward. At least five automakers —BMW, Hyundai, Ford, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz—now offer OTA software updates, with many more likely to join in over the next 18 months or so.

OTA software upgrades not only affect entertainment systems but also powertrain and vehicle safety systems. According to analyst firm Gartner Group, there will be 250 million connected vehicles on the road by 2020 . Within five years, OTA software upgrades are expected to be commonplace for new vehicles.

The value of the market for connected car services is forecast to grow to $148 billion in 2020, reported Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) . Safety-related features are expected to account for 47 percent, followed by autonomous driving at 35 percent, with entertainment features accounting for 13 percent. This networked mobility market represents a tripling from today’s level and is not only being pushed by demand for connected-car components, but also by the rise of entirely new digital business opportunities, stated PwC.

There’s another powerful factoid proving the huge potential of this no-fuss, no-muss approach to software updates that has grabbed the attention of the entire auto industry. The first round in a slew of high-priced acquisitions in the segment includes Harman International’s $170 million purchase of Red Bend Software and its $780 million buy of Symphony Teleca.

Thumbs Down on Software Update Travel
Given how consumers use their other electronic devices, they may soon consider it outrageous that they must either download to a thumb drive or travel to a dealership to have their vehicle’s software updated. Imagine having to go to a retailer to upgrade an application on your smartphone or tablet. While automotive systems are more complex than consumer electronics, OTA is clearly the future for electronics-driven vehicles.
Nevertheless, an automotive-grade solution must be reliable, secure and safe. It must also handle the numerous interdependent modules within the car. Customer expectations are much higher as well. People want “mobile-like” updates with zero downtime, zero crashes and zero trouble. While customers may be annoyed when a new software update breaks their phone for an hour, it’s unacceptable if a broken automotive software update means that they can’t get to work for the same period.

A Future in Future Proofing
Most discussions about vehicle software updates have been limited to bug fixes, recall avoidance and security patches. However, with software supplying so many of the car’s capabilities, software updates can give the industry an amazing degree of flexibility that hasn’t yet been fully realized. One obvious opportunity is in releasing innovative new software throughout the vehicle’s entire life. In effect, future-proofing hardware for the car.

The software-defined car also lets carmakers react in real time to their customers. OEMs can access anonymous diagnostic data that lets them see how their cars are being used. Such access can feed a continual improvement process to develop new features that customers want. Just like application updates do today, automotive software updates can fix areas of continual complaint, add newly requested options and, most important, create happy, satisfied customers.

The software-defined car must combine deep automotive expertise, secure over-the-air updates, complete occupant safety, and flexible diagnostic access to allow process and product improvements through reliably updatable software.

Fixing Some of Today’s OTA Limitations
While OTA is clearly on its way to becoming a standard practice in the industry, many current vendors haven’t ironed out some of the limitations in their solutions. One approach to avoiding concern among automotive OEMs and Tier-1 module manufacturers, comes from car software management company Movimento. The company recently brought to the market a solution that encompasses the entire software updating needs of the car as a whole.

Some vendors require brand-specific code to be installed on every module. But this software often isn’t even available for older, legacy architectures. OEMs should seek out solutions enabling all-car updates for the widest list of brands and models.

Another superior OTA feature worth seeking out is bidirectional data gathering within the car, in which a data agent gathers vehicle diagnostics, for prognostic and preventative analytics purposes. This action can provide data to third-party companies for insurance and other uses. The OTA platform, such as Movimento’s OTA platform, knows when to use this data to intelligently know when to safely and proactively apply the next software update to the car.

Security is an ongoing need in the OTA process to keep autos safe and minimize the risk of being hacked through monitoring the vehicle bus and detecting unauthorized messages. Today’s most advanced approach uses cybersecurity technology to continually protect the entire vehicle from unauthorized messages, including security breaches of any kind such as malware.

Mining the Software Mindset
The software-defined car is a huge step forward in a technology continuum that will eventually bring us production versions of the driverless car and other major advances rewriting the auto industry. Consider that a Boeing Dreamliner 787 has 15 million lines of code—a tenth of what’s expected in tomorrow’s driverless cars. Automotive engineers with a software mindset today will be those best equipped to harness the amazing technology developments in the near future.

Mahbubul_Alam_headshotMahbubul Alam is CTO, Movimento. Alam joined Movimento as CTO in 2015 and is responsible for aligning automotive and information technology with corporate strategy to enable Movimento to lead the automotive industry’s transition to software-defined vehicles. A 17-year industry veteran, Alam works with Movimento customers to maximize the potential of secure over-the-air (OTA) updates and enable new connected services for the vehicle.

Previously, Alam led Cisco Systems strategy in IoT and M2M, where he pioneered and developed this business from the ground up through vision, strategy, platform and execution. He also helped initiate the company’s smart connected vehicle roadmap. Before joining Cisco, Alam held technical leader positions at Siemens and worked as a technical advisor to the Dutch government.

Alam holds a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Delft University of Technology.

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