Cars of the future will be defined by their software
Matthew Beedham·Nov 04, 2021

Cars of the future will be defined by their software

Matthew Beedham
Nov 04, 2021 · 7 min read
Cars of the Future will be Defined by Their Software | TomTom Newsroom

Electric vehicles (EVs) are being developed as a tool to reduce automotive CO2 emissions and tackle climate change. As vehicles move from being mechanical tools to complex pieces of electrically powered technology, we’re witnessing possibly the biggest industrial shift of our generation. Where vehicle development once focused on mechanics, it will now have to focus on software.

With the transition to electric power, carmakers are being challenged to build new drivetrains, reimagine their model lineup and rethink what it is to be an automaker. VW Group CEO Herbert Diess has said on several occasions, that the German marque will have to completely change to a “digital company”, if it’s to remain competitive in a fast-changing market.

What Diess is really alluding to when he says “digital company” is software. The VW of the future won’t just make cars, it will have to continually develop software to run them as devices.

Modern carmakers have many years of experience at producing complex mechanical vehicles and are well versed in running complex global supply chains. However, software has for the most part come secondary. It’s used functionally to make some components of the car work and is spread across many different processing units and that’s that.

Right now, the priority is very much with the mechanical components of the vehicle.

Software defined vehicles

With the transition to electric power, we don’t see cars as complex industrial carriages defined by their mechanical underpinnings anymore. We see them as pieces of technology defined by their experience and future potential – that experience is defined by software.

What’s more, like with mobile phones, we expect our electronics to continue to improve as time goes on. We expect software updates, security patches, new features and iterative improvements. This mentality now applies to cars. They are transformable electronics that can and should be continually updated.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, as automakers have moved to electric drivetrains, “computing has become the heart of the vehicle.” No longer do mechanical components take center stage in vehicle development, rather it’s the software tying it all together that is becoming the focus.

For an EV, software has a dramatic and broad impact over how that vehicle drives and its overall dynamic characteristics.

From explosions to electrons

Compared to a combustion engine, there are far fewer moving parts and components required to make an EV move. While this has its upsides in the form of fewer servicing requirements, for carmakers it removes masses of opportunity for how they define and differentiate their vehicles and places greater emphasis on the software that controls their vehicles’ components.

With combustion engines, carmakers can choose between gasoline, diesel, or LPG as fuel. Engines powered by each of these fuels has subtly different characteristics compared to the next. Diesels are torque-y and low revving, whereas gasoline engines rev across a wider power band and feel sprightlier.

Combustion engines have their fair share of electronics, but still rely heavily on mechanical components to generate power.

Combustion engines have their fair share of electronics, but still rely heavily on mechanical components to generate power.

Then we can consider engine displacement. Smaller engines have very different characteristics in terms of power delivery and noise than much larger ones. Often, they are peppy and economical, rather than strong and powerful.

Next, we could talk about the engine’s number of cylinders and configuration. We could have three, four, five, six, eight or more cylinders arranged in everything from a straight line to a “V” to a “W”. That’s before we get on to talking about the choice between manual and automatic transmissions.

Sure, EVs can have more than one motor and their powers and configurations can vary. Battery sizes across EVs differ, affecting possible range, but that’s about it when it comes to differentiation.

The point is: with combustion engine cars, there are a lot of options. With EVs, there aren’t as many. Moving to electric powertrains effectively standardizes the fuel and drive type.

Electric vehicles feature far fewer moving parts than a combustion engine vehicle. Mechanically speaking they’re simpler, but they present a new challenge to carmakers: software.

Electric vehicles feature far fewer moving parts than a combustion engine vehicle. Mechanically speaking they’re simpler, but they present a new challenge to carmakers: software.

Software, therefore, occupies a space of greater importance when designing a car, deciding how it should drive and defining its dynamics and characteristics.

New technologies, new opportunities

This move to electric drivetrains is also bringing new software-based opportunities, the surface of which is only just being scratched.

The amount of power the vehicle delivers to the road is limited by the motor and electronics, but how it delivers that power is governed mostly by software. EV maker Tesla has offered an acceleration boost upgrade through an OTA software update, knocking half a second off the Model 3’s 0-60 mph time.

What’s more, while the battery capacity ultimately limits the vehicle’s total range, over-the-air updates can boost economy and improve how far the car can drive on a single charge. Last month, Audi pushed an update to its older e-tron SUV to add an extra 12 miles of range, for example.

The tuning options offered in these two examples demonstrates the power of software.

It might be the case that EV drivetrains put focus on the need for good vehicle code, but there are plenty of other technological developments pushing carmakers to take software more seriously.

As carmakers look to make vehicles safer and easier to drive, cars are being packed with sensor arrays, LiDAR, active safety devices, advanced driver assistance systems and automated features. All these need to be controlled, data from sensors needs to be interpreted and information needs to be relayed to the driver, or another input mechanism, via software.

Consider a radar guided cruise control with automatic lane keeping system. The sensors must be able to interpret the position on the road and the distance from the car in front. This data then needs to be relayed to the vehicle’s drive system to make the car speed up or slow down and turn left or right. It must also relay speed to the driver’s digital cockpit.

Other data sources such as HD Maps can be used to inform the vehicle of its position on the road and current speed limits, those can be considered by the software to add another layer of accuracy.

As we sit inside a modern vehicle, it’s clear we’re witnessing another significant development in how we control and experience a car. Standard controls like pedals, a steering wheel and control storks are still present, however, our dashboards are becoming dominated by screens. Analog dials are out, the digital cockpit is in.

The digital cockpit will become common terminology as screens dominate our dashboards and analog dials become a thing of the past.

The digital cockpit will become common terminology as screens dominate our dashboards and analog dials become a thing of the past.

Where we once had a radio or CD player, we now have a massive, connected screen capable of connecting to the internet to play video or stream music. Beyond this, the central screen can play host to more unique applications that we’ve never seen in vehicles before, such as specialist route planners, podcast content and more.

Drivers of electric vehicles demand more from their mapping and routing than owners of traditional combustion engine. With range anxiety still at the front of many EV drivers’ minds, knowing where they can charge up is crucial. As EV charging infrastructure improves, providing drivers with the most up to date information with over-the-air updates is crucial to maintaining trust and delivering an excellent experience.

Imagine buying an EV and never getting an update to where all the chargers are. Planning a long-distance road trip would be a nightmare and you’d probably start using free apps on your phone if your car can’t keep pace.

Carmakers can no longer make a car, release it and only provide updates when crucial. Carmakers must continue to support and develop their vehicles once they are out in the world, failure to do so is irreverent of their customers’ expectations. It’s missing a world of opportunity.

A new type of carmaker

When VW launched its hotly-anticipated ID.3 electric hatchback in 2020, it was beset with software problems that delayed its production roll-out. Ultimately, it launched without its intended full suite of software, features were missing and owners couldn’t use the vehicle’s connected app – which is crucial for remotely monitoring charging.

The German automaker reportedly had thousands of software developers working to fix the problems.

By the end of 2020, VW said that it had fixed the software issues and would begin updating affected vehicles. The ID.3’s earliest buyers had to go into a dealership to have their vehicles updated so that all its features would work. After that, ID.3 owners were able to receive OTA updates for future software rollouts.

While the whole debacle was a big problem for VW and ID.3 drivers, what it really demonstrated was how seriously carmakers need to take software.

As EVs proliferate, car companies that can do software well will succeed and those that can’t will either languish or exist only in niche markets. Carmakers of the future must put software front and center of vehicle development. EV architecture demands it, safety features require it and drivers expect it.

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