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Driving the future: Why open-source is key in a world of software-defined cars

Processing power requirements will require a seismic shift in the way OEMs work, writes Bertrand Boisseau

What if the most important part of your car was not the metal, or the tyres, or the leather interior—but the millions of code lines inside it? The car is the iconic consumer item of the twentieth century. Yet, increasingly the value of a vehicle comes less from the design, or the hardware, but from technologies such as vehicle electrification, autonomous driving and other software-defined services. Now, software primarily drives the value of the car.

Meeting the challenges ahead

For car companies and their suppliers, the challenges of the software-defined car are already very real. OEMs are already hiring new workers and re-skilling existing ones to navigate these challenges, such as cyber security and connected technologies. Ten years ago, OEMs such as Renault and Volkswagen had very few in-house software engineers. Now, both have numerous entities focusing on software.

Looking into the near future, it is clear that software will become ever more central to the vehicles we drive and that will soon drive us, as vehicles become more connected, autonomous, shared and electric (CASE). In the next few years, autonomous vehicles will soon be handling tens of terabytes of data per day, gathered by sensors such as LIDAR and cameras. Customers are increasingly expecting smartphone-esque features, which involves keeping pace with the very latest apps and technologies.

Automakers are bulking up their in-house software expertise

Combined with features such as passenger entertainment systems and remote diagnostics, the requirement for software and processing power in vehicles is going to grow at an ever-increasing pace. Open source software can provide automakers the power to keep up.

Accelerating innovation

Inevitably, these processing power requirements will require a seismic shift in the way OEMs work. Currently, OEMs are struggling to maintain existing systems  while at the same time attempting to develop new platforms. It’s a hangover from years in which vehicles were not connected, or had extremely basic connected services. This has led to a situation where it’s difficult to upgrade the software at pace, due to the requirements and constraints of the hardware.

There are lessons for automakers in the smartphone world. Think about how a software update can be applied across multiple different smartphones. An iOS update works just as well across a new device, or a device from four years ago. One iPhone will see multiple updates, adding new features and boosting security.

For car manufacturers, this won’t be an easy shift: the industry needs more defined standards to allow an easier interface between hardware and software. The industry also needs to reconsider how it develops hardware and how this relates to software. These challenges will require a new way of thinking for car manufacturers, as they transition to a world where time cycles are critical. Many believe that cross-industry collaboration is needed to accelerate development for autonomous vehicles.

Increasingly the value of a vehicle comes less from the design, or the hardware, but from technologies such as vehicle electrification, autonomous driving and other software-defined services

Increasing complexity

Complexity is building at an increasingly rapid pace in the car industry – and this shows no sign of slowing down. In a report on the industry, McKinsey notes that the average complexity of individual software projects in the automotive sector has grown by 300% over the last decade. By 2025, the number of lines of code in the average luxury car will have doubled from today’s figure of 100 million lines of code, according to a prediction by Volkswagen—which is already more than a military aircraft like the F-35. In full-self-driving cars, the figure could potentially reach a billion lines of code, analysts believe.

It’s not just the software which is becoming more complex, the hardware is too. Modern vehicles already have up to 150 electronic control units (ECUs), often scattered through the vehicles, close to sensors. Increasingly, manufacturers are moving towards a model where these ECUs are combined and consolidated, connected by an Ethernet network. As the amount of data vehicles deal with increases, it’s unlikely that all of this will be directly uploaded to cloud servers. Instead, much of it will be processed inside the vehicle, before ‘edited highlights’ are uploaded to the cloud for processing.

This has important implications for vehicle maintenance and also poses cost issues. Car manufacturers face challenges when it comes to managing the ever-growing complexity of their systems, while trying to keep annual recurring costs down.

A slide from a 2020 presentation by Herbert Diess highlights the VW Group’s software ambitions

Cyber security and the hackable car

The need for cyber-secure vehicles is also growing, particularly as self-driving vehicles enter the fray. In 2015, two security experts showed off a hack where they were able to ‘switch off’ a Jeep driving at 70mph down an American highway. It marked the dawn of the ‘hackable’ car, although the seeds of this were sown decades earlier when the first ‘connected’ components were unveiled in the 1980s and were not built to be resilient to hackers. A 2021 report from Upstream Security on global automotive security was damning, saying, “there have been 110 Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) that year related to the automotive industry, 33 in 2020 alone compared to 24 in 2019.”

Ultimately, the automotive industry faces increasing regulation in the face of these threats. As governments begin to regulate software within the automotive industry, those designing the products and software will become more accountable.

Keeping passengers safe

For car manufacturers, there are also important issues related to physical safety—unsurprising when you are dealing with a device which weighs a ton. This directly impacts software development, with additional costs for any system which has an impact on driver or passenger safety. Car manufacturers need to learn from the aviation industry, where systems related to safety are rigidly separated from those that are not, reducing costs due to compliance.

It’s often difficult to reuse existing software in cars today, as it can require porting to a different configuration. Costs can rise, not in a linear fashion, but exponentially. How much money will it cost to write, implement and test 100 million lines of code—or a billion? This is the challenge manufacturers are facing. When it comes to managing these costs, open source will become ever more important, and not only will allow the reuse of existing software, but will enable other manufacturers to contribute to said software.

The software-defined future

As we move towards a future in which cars are software-defined, open source offers an attractive solution. Car makers need to embrace open source to unleash the power of their ambitions. They also need to ensure that cars keep in sync with the relentless drumbeat of innovation coming from the mobile phone industry. A car is the most complex device a consumer owns—why should it not outpace a mobile phone in terms of innovation? Open source, with its flexibility and scalability, will be key to building cars fit for the future.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Bertrand Boisseau isAutomotive Sector Lead at Canonical

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