The case for an end-to-end automotive-software platform

Software is transforming car capabilities but also creating development challenges for automotive players. An end-to-end approach that integrates independent software elements into a comprehensive platform can improve functionality and decrease complexity

Today’s hardware-defined cars are rapidly transforming into software-defined transportation platforms. The latest automotive innovations, including intuitive infotainment, self-driving abilities, and electrification, depend less on mechanical ingenuity than on software quality, execution, and integration. This change is happening so rapidly that automotive OEMs and other industry stakeholders are now struggling to keep pace. The enormous cost of integrating and upgrading the features that consumers increasingly expect, including high-end onboard assistants and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), is also daunting.

Automotive-software development: Trapped in a maze of complexity

Despite the clear importance of software to vehicle performance, the development of automotive-software modules frequently occurs in isolation. An OEM’s in-house team may build some; others are purchased from suppliers or come out of strategic partnerships or joint ventures. Once the full set is available, OEMs or their tier-one suppliers try to stitch the modules together into a proprietary platform.

A typical new-generation vehicle likely has a software architecture composed of five or more domains, together comprising hundreds of functional components in the car and in the cloud. These cover everything from infotainment and ADAS to mapping, telematics, and third-party applications (Exhibit 1). Typical OEMs constructing this architecture interact with a multitude of software providers to build various capabilities; in the process, they fill their vehicles with a broad set of development languages, operating systems, and software structures. This piecemeal approach is common among industry leaders because no single software platform on the market can meet all cross-system needs.

Many automotive companies leverage the basic code for their software stacks, including those for operating systems and key middleware, from other industries. In doing so, they significantly reduce their development timelines and costs, since creating original code is much more difficult. For infotainment, the leading options for upcoming vehicles stem from the smartphone industry, with automotive variants of mobile operating systems becoming common. For ADAS, companies originally borrowed early software from aerospace applications and manufacturing automation; today, real-time operating systems from semiconductor players and embedded-software companies have become popular.

Software modules such as these are impressive in their own right and have enabled some of the most important automotive advances over the past ten years. But we are entering a new age in which automotive features increasingly rely on seamless integration among multiple vehicle subsystems. For instance, the active suspension on several new luxury vehicles requires real-time interaction among ADAS cameras, powertrain sensors, and chassis actuators—three discrete domains with separate software architectures, operating systems, and middleware.

Although integration among these vehicle systems is essential to unlock new use cases, companies are missing an end-to-end platform to connect everything together. OEMs and tier-one suppliers therefore face a daunting task of interface control and integration, creating major challenges in development, security, and performance.

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SOURCE: McKinsey & Company