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Software-defined vehicles are revolutionizing what it means to own a car

(Image credit: Image Credit: B-lay)

The era of the software-defined vehicle has dawned, upending the established dynamic that a car depreciates once it leaves the lot. Instead it’s just the starting point for the car’s future functionality.

Influenced by the evolution of consumer electronics applications and fueled by the relentless improvements in technology, tools and standards, the automotive industry is entering a new era that is redefining how we think of automobiles. Consumers are increasingly interested in higher levels of automated safety features, while a concerted move towards electrified powertrains and infotainment technologies is delivering a smartphone-like experience in the car. The idea of taking a vehicle to the dealership to be hooked up to a computer to gain diagnostic information or update software and settings is becoming increasingly primitive.

Instead, the software-defined vehicle promises a far more polished, rewarding experience of car ownership. Consumers will get in their car to drive to work and, just like the software updates they’re used to on their smartphones, they’ll receive a notification that the steering system has been upgraded to give more precise handling, the advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) has a new capability to aid their highway driving or that their vehicle’s range has just been increased based on analysis of thousands of hours of battery cycles. 

Or perhaps they’ll be given or offered an entirely new feature that was never part of their original purchase decision, yet one they’ll grow to rely upon. That will cement their brand loyalty – at least until another manufacturer implements a superior solution. 

The developer advantage

Software infrastructure companies see a huge potential for software-defined functions in the car. For example, Stefano Marzani, principal specialist, solutions architect, autonomous vehicles at Amazon Web Services, sees the software-defined vehicle as a simple definition with enormous potential.  

“It’s a standard compute platform for vehicles with everything that standards imply,” he said. Marzani recently participated in an Arm DevSummit 2021 panel discussion with me and other industry experts. He compared the new design approach to the methodologies used in mobile development: “So you develop an application on your computer or Mac, and then you just deploy it on iPhones or Android phones, and it just works. The developer doesn't doubt that it is working.” 

As more automotive functions become defined by software, the more opportunities arise throughout the whole value chain of the automotive industry. These include new business and bill-of-materials efficiencies by having software-defined functions rather than everything being specific hardware. There’s also new potential revenue from either services or applications or even upgrades to the vehicle. 

When the car leaves the dealer’s lot, for example, you don't end the relationship between the automotive manufacturer and the consumer; it’s just beginning. That’s because there are going to be these remote touchpoints through software upgrades or new services that are going to be available to the consumer.

Managing complexity

But before we get there, we have to nail the engineering, according to Martin Schleicher, head of software strategy at Continental. Asked on our panel whether it’s engineering or software development that’s more important for the future of the software-defined vehicle, he said:  

“To be able to deliver software updates to consumers, we need to get the engineering part right. The complexity of the electronics – in particular, software – has been growing so heavily and this is expected to continue compared to other elements. This creates a big challenge of managing this complexity. The software-defined vehicle and the elements that Stefano explained earlier are mandatory for us – for the whole industry. In fact, the whole supply chain has to be able to deliver the software continuously, with high quality, and update it.” 

Pierre Olivier, CTO of LeddarTech, said the consumers are calling the shots, based on their mobile phone experiences, and one harbinger of where software-defined vehicle design is headed can be seen in infotainment.  

“Five years ago, everybody added discrete (infotainment) systems (to vehicles), and now consumers are demanding Android Auto and similar experiences in compliance with the standards, so it becomes a mandatory feature,” he said.  

It’s not just the smartphone experience that’s important here; it’s also the smartphone platform approach. Until the mid-2000s, a cellphone’s hardware and software were coupled on the production line, with software-only updated if a significant bug was identified. It meant that annual cellphone upgrades were big business, just as trading in your car for the latest model was the only way to access new features and enhancements.

Smartphones changed this dynamic by decoupling hardware and software. The smartphone became a hardware platform upon which manufacturers could create bespoke versions of the operating system and deliver updates over-the-air (OTA) while developers could build new applications. 

Going forward, software-defined functions may be updated regularly, but its base hardware – the sensors, compute modules, data buses and other technologies that the car has when it leaves the showroom – are unlikely to change too often.

Future-proofing automobiles 

So how do we deliver a hardware platform that has the compute capability, flexibility and capacity to handle complex use cases that may not even exist yet? One way is by building on top of device and subsystems (increasingly integrated subsystems, by the way) that are built on open standards with an eye toward functional safety and security best practices. 

A great example of this is the recent announcement of Scalable Open Architecture for Embedded Edge (SOAFEE). It is the result of automakers, system integrators, and leaders in semiconductor, software, and cloud technology coming together to define a new open-standards-based architecture for the software-defined vehicle. In addition, the SOAFEE reference implementation, an implementation of the architecture defined by a Special Interest Group (SIG) of these leaders, will be free open-source software aimed at allowing broad prototyping, workload exploration and early development. At Arm, we're working with leading commercial solutions providers to maximize compatibility and provide a faster route to functionally safe designs. 

This not only enables the development and deployment environment to make the software defined vehicle a reality, but also brings a “shift-left” development mantra that allows these software-defined functions to be developed earlier in the vehicle design cycle and hence shorten the time to deployment. 

The evolution of automotive design is accelerating into new areas that hold enormous promise for designers and developers, as well as consumers. It’s also driving a functional change at the innovation level: You don't have to be an automotive expert to design a lot of the software functions that go into the vehicle. This is a key point to the success of the future vehicles, where innovation and feature enhancements can yield monetary benefits across the automotive ecosystem, from the OEMs that are providing and defining the vehicle, through to their ecosystem and developer network – including startups now more easily able to contribute to the automotive value chain – delivering continuous improvement over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Consumers increasingly rely on their phones not only for what the devices offer them today, but what they know will be added seamlessly over the course of the device’s lifetime – and in the car this could be software features that take advantage of existing hardware sensors in other useful ways.  

This is the dynamic that’s underpinning the software-defined vehicle, and it’s coming to a dealer showroom near you.

Robert Day, Director of Automotive Partnerships, Automotive and IoT Line of Business, Arm

Robert Day, Director of Automotive Partnerships, Automotive and IoT Line of Business, Arm