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Software companies must think automotive to succeed in automotive

Wind River helped put autonomous vehicles on Mars. Now it’s helping put autonomous cars on public roads. By Megan Lampinen

Connected vehicle technology requires a holistic approach – and that’s exactly the approach that software specialist Wind River is taking. As it now tackles the challenge of autonomous cars, the company has a broad range of experiences from which to draw.

Mars rover CuriosityHaving started with the aerospace, defence and robotics industries, Wind River has been involved in autonomous vehicles for some time. “Amongst our first autonomous vehicles were each one of the Mars Rovers that’s still parading around up there,” Marques McCammon, General Manager of connected vehicles at Wind River, told Megatrends. “Our operating system VxWorks has been the operating system basis for each one of those vehicles. We have also applied that to autonomous flying vehicles – drones and other defence-related programmes.”

This operating system has also been a part of Audi’s autonomous driving architecture, developed by the OEM in conjunction with networking solutions supplier TTTech. “We’ve been part of that development since the beginning,” added McCammon. “To our knowledge, that will be one of the leading production highly automated vehicles.”

Amongst our first autonomous vehicles were each one of the Mars Rovers that’s still parading around up there

Silicon Valley influence

One of the transformational trends shaping automotive developments comes from the consumer technology industry. McCammon observed that what he calls the conventional Silicon Valley-based brand experiences have been spreading into the automotive environment. He elaborated: “Microsoft was probably the first of the conventional Silicon Valley or tech sector software companies to make its foray into automotive when it did the Sync programme with Ford. Now we are seeing that whole interaction model evolving. More and more of the experiences of these software companies are extending to various aspects of life.” He points to Apple TV as an example of technology that can interact with the home or a personal mobile device as well as the car, “defining the user experience there.”

This particular trend is so important because it suggests consumer expectations could dramatically change in the future. “We don’t know what that means and what the expectation is for the next generation of consumers when they come into an automobile. Do they want a BMW and Audi experience or a Google experience? Pre-teens today don’t know a world without Google,” McCammon commented. “By the time they get to be of driving age, or the age to interact directly with a car, they’ve had more time interacting with the experiences of some of these technology and mobility brands than they have with anything relating to the conventional automotive brand.”

Audi piloted driving

Unbounded potential

Along with uncertainty comes fresh opportunities, and the Internet of Things (IoT) brings plenty. “We have the ability to pivot the entire commercial model of the auto industry,” suggested McCammon. “We move data more freely. People share data more freely. Information is accessible everywhere. The car has such a critical role to play in the way that we interact with life.” For instance, there could be a big shift from selling the car in a one-time transaction to a model where the consumer could be renting the car or renting a portion of the car. Either way, OEMs will be looking for ways to interact with drivers, either through occasional servicing in the first instance or daily interactions through mobile devices in the latter.

Ford is going beyond talking to the consumers in the context of the vehicle and the driving experience, and actually trying to become a part of their entire life

McCammon points to FordPass as one example of an OEM’s efforts to engage with the consumer along various points. “Here Ford is going beyond talking to the consumers in the context of the vehicle and the driving experience, and actually trying to become a part of their entire life,” he emphasised. The possibilities here are almost endless. For instance, an OEM could predict how long it takes for an individual to travel to his local grocery store or place of work and offer feedback on things that could be done in that transition. “I could recognise that your drycleaners is on the way between your home and your office and show you that I can reroute you to your drycleaners – and maybe the drycleaners can send you a coupon to help you save money when you show up,” McCammon suggested. “The potential of what we could do to add value to the customer is just unbounded.”

While there is a fine line between helpful and creepy, McCammon observed that the behavioural patterns of younger individuals suggests that they are not shy of sharing personal details. “Look at how they interact with social media, and the fact that they tag their location every time they make a post. They’ll tell you when they wake up, when they get out of bed. It is a different social phenomenon than what we’re used to. They seem to be much more comfortable with that.”

A skeleton for software

At Wind River, the idea is to think about software not just as a software company but also as an automotive company. “At an auto company, they think about each individual component,” explained McCammon. “An engineer can solve a problem, especially if you isolate the number of variables. The more variables you put into the environment in which ‘x’ has to operate, the more complex it becomes. In the automotive industry, they have become very good at how to separate the problem of driving into its constituent pieces.”

At the same time, there is system integration, which “brings all the pieces together to figure out how to make a harmonious signature. We have to look at software the same way. We have to look at how the constituent pieces ultimately are going to interact with each other, and define them upfront to facilitate proper interaction,” he emphasised.

The potential of what we could do to add value to the customer is just unbounded

In approaching software through a more holistic sense, McCammon uses the term ‘from sensors to server room’. As he elaborated: “Start with the sensors in the bumper of the car. Then, all the way back through the Cloud somewhere, there is a data centre, or a collection of servers, that will aggregate that data and figure out whether or not it can do something with it. Then the information is pushed back to the driver. Along the way we cannot isolate any part of the vehicle system. We have to think about it end-to-end and we have to predict as much as we can which elements of software are going to be relevant at every step through that vehicle process.”

The only way to take advantage of the full ecosystem is to address such variances and inputs from the start and come up with a strong framework. “We need to give the car a skeleton for software, designing that skeleton so that it is looking to welcome new innovation from different places,” he said.

At Wind River, that skeleton is called Helix Chassis, an architecture for end-to-end connectivity and autonomous enablement. It provides the sort of comprehensive Cloud-based connectivity, foundation for security, and modular flexibility that is needed to integrate systems within intelligent vehicles and connect them to external networks of devices and data. “I think that is the key to transforming the energy in the near and long-term,” observed McCammon.

Also key for Wind River is the ability to manage the lifecycle challenge. “We have to know that the systems are going to evolve, and we can’t make a stagnated software system because by the time the vehicle is on the road for 18 months or two years, half of that software is already obsolete,” he said.

Wind River recently acquired over-the-air (OTA) specialist Arynga, which handles software and firmware OTA updates. “That becomes a critical aspect to an overall market strategy. Software is a living thing. You also have to manage the threats. People talk about vehicle security like you can put a firewall in place and then walk away from it. It doesn’t work like that,” observed McCammon. “Securing a vehicle is a combination of product and process, and it must have the ability to grow and evolve and to morph to meet new threats as they arise.”

This article appeared in the Q2 2016 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.