Decoding the risks and rewards of software-defined vehicles

02 February 2023


Once mechanical marvels, cars are now increasingly digital. Autovista24 deputy editor Tom Geggus decodes the risks and rewards of software-defined vehicles (SDV).

At the dawn of the automotive industry, cars moved mechanically. Then as computerised components became increasingly integral to functionality, the need for more complex digital systems grew. Now, software not only enables essential operations, but can define the purpose, public perception, and personality of a car.

Look no further than the BMW i Vision Dee or the Afeela concept from Sony Honda Mobility (SHM), both unveiled at CES 2023. Both aim to build on the human-vehicle relationship by advancing digital capabilities, powered by increasingly advanced software. SHM told Autovista24 that the SDV approach to mobility will make cars more intelligent.

This will be of critical importance to SHM as it aims to allow each passenger to spend their time as they like, making the car more like a living room. Alongside infotainment, the collaborative company believes advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous-driving technology stand to benefit from SDVs. New brands are not alone in delving into digital development either. Established in 2020, Cariad is Volkswagen (VW) Group’s dedicated software subsidiary.

‘It is typically said that about 90% of new features and functionality in the vehicle are driven by software,’ Amen Hamdan, head of vehicle and cloud platform at Cariad, said at CES 2023. ‘This trend is further fuelled by the emergence of automated driving, the convergence of consumer electronic devices, online services, with the in-vehicle infotainment, we have a very strong push towards electrification.’

He outlined that vehicles are moving beyond the point of simple transportation. Instead, they can now be considered more like consumer electronic devices. Bosch told Autovista24 that many drivers now expect vehicles to be fully integrated into their digital lives. On top of this, the supplier believes connected, automated and personalised features will be increasingly implemented within automotive software.

‘While in the past the customer’s experience of a car was primarily defined by hardware, software is now taking on a much more important role,’ the supplier said. ‘This trend of software massively shaping the customer experience and, in some cases, even the specification of the hardware is referred to as the “software-defined vehicle.”’ But to understand the corresponding outcomes, risks and rewards of this digital approach, it is important to define what is meant by SDV.

What is an SDV?

‘An SDV is any vehicle that manages its operations, adds functionality, and enables new features primarily or entirely through software, this software requires both safety and non-safety domains, and the software-defined features are changeable throughout the lifetime of the vehicle,’ Vito Giallorenzo, senior vice president and general manager of Ivy at BlackBerry, told Autovista24.

He said that while today’s vehicles do sport a lot of software, an SDV controls many of its mechanical and hardware systems completely through software. This means that over-the-air (OTA) updates can keep improving not only the user interface but the performance elements impacting driving behaviour, long after the vehicle leaves the dealership.

For many, this ability to update and redefine via software puts SDVs on a similar level to smartphones. However, Sonatus cautions against this simplified approach. The vehicle software company’s chief marketing officer, John Heinlein, told Autovista24 that SDVs are more like data centres on wheels. Carmakers can now monitor, analyse, control and automate vehicles in real-time thanks to data-driven innovations.

He pointed out that today’s vehicles can sport up to 150 million lines of software code, working across as many as 100 electronic control units, not to mention sensors, cameras, radar as well as light and range-detection devices.

‘SDVs enable better management of this software and can unlock new simplified vehicle “zonal” architectures that can also reduce vehicle weight and manufacturing costs. The customer’s car experience was once primarily defined by hardware in the past; however, the future is software defined and software innovation is taking on a much more critical role,’ Heinlein said.

Critical collaboration

SDV development requires an immense amount of collaboration between carmakers, suppliers and software experts. Volvo, for example, is deepening its collaboration with technology giants like Google, leveraging the platforms and services on offer to build an advanced user experience.

At the start of this year, the brand announced the rollout of an OTA update, expected to reach some 350,000 customers around the world. One of the major benefits for these users was access to voice commands through Google Assistant-enabled services.

However, the manufacturer is still working on its in-house capabilities, looking to develop its own core computing platform and vehicle functions. Alwin Bakkenes, Volvo’s head of software engineering, told Autovista24 that the carmaker aims to have ‘full control of the integration flow from code to complete car that helps improve our flexibility and development speeds.’

Heinlein underscored that systems needed to realise SDVs on electric architectures are derived from IT and data centres. This means that not only will vehicle technology have to change, but the automotive development process itself.

‘This is just one of the reasons that realising SDVs at scale is such a monumental endeavour — especially considering the short time frame the market is demanding for this transformation to take place, hence why Sonatus believes that nothing less than extreme collaboration between OEMs and suppliers, including new specialised technology suppliers like ourselves is required — and this is what we are doing today with our OEM partners like Hyundai Motor Group,’ Heinlein said.

Giallorenzo highlighted collaborations between technology vendors and manufacturers as the point of creation for the next generation of intelligent connected cars. ‘OEMs cannot do everything in-house and need to collaborate with the right partners to roll out innovative SDV architectures and new connected services,’ he explained.

Outperforming hardware

But what benefits will all this collaboration offer? Giallorenzo believes the benefits of SDVs will encompass the entirety of the car. This includes superior safety features with anti-collision technology and ADAS, as well as greater in-cabin comfort with improved infotainment capabilities. Better telematics and diagnostics will also allow maintenance and fleet management to take a huge leap forward.

‘SDVs outperform their hardware-defined predecessors across multiple arenas. In addition to being safer, they provide superior comfort and convenience, as well as lower operating costs throughout their lifecycle. Since many SDVs are also electric, they have considerably smaller environmental footprints,’ Giallorenzo explained.

More broadly, OTA updates will allow carmakers to keep working on all these capabilities, improving a vehicle’s performance and services long after it leaves the factory. Giallorenzo pointed out that this represents the most significant paradigm shift the automotive industry has ever experienced, as hardware-defined cars tend to remain unchanged through their lifecycle.

Bakkenes confirmed all of Volvo’s new car models now come equipped with OTA update functionality to continually improve features such as infotainment, safety, charging, and more. He went as far as to describe the brand’s next generation of battery-electric vehicle (BEV) as ‘computers on wheels’.

‘Centralising computing will help avoid the complexity of having multiple electronic control units around the car that control individual features and systems. A core computing system will, instead, keep all units under control in a more efficient and sustainable way, centralise software and allow for easier over-the-air updates to get the car improved continuously,’ Bakkenes said.

Software satisfaction

Bosch outlined how the updatable potential of SDVs unlocks greater personalisation, with users able to select features as and when they want them. This in turn creates fresh opportunities for companies to deliver services via new contracts and pricing models. Heinlein described the potential advantages for a businessperson who regularly rents cars.

‘How satisfying and convenient would it be for her that upon entering the car of her choice it would automatically configure all of the features exactly as she prefers—from the temperature to the seating position, to interior lighting colour— then preload her navigation destination and with a confirmation, be ready to exit the garage without even having to stop to show her license?,’ he asked.

Another system set to benefit massively from developing software is in-vehicle audio. ‘Almost everyone can differentiate good from bad audio, whether they appreciate it or not, but they can differentiate it,’ Dirac’s product manager for automotive, Rüdiger Fleischer, told Autovista24. ‘If you have ever had a car with a really good audio system, you would not want to go back.’

Meanwhile, bad audio systems leave just as much of an impression, only a very negative one. It is not hard to understand why this is either. Hard surfaces such as glass and plastic make vehicle interiors extremely difficult surroundings for high-quality audio delivery, as sound waves get bounced back and forth over a small interior space, with no one sitting in the ‘sweet spot’.

But using an algorithm based on scientific and mathematical models, Dirac uses software to vastly improve the audio quality delivered within a vehicle. So instead of filling a car space with an increasing number of speakers, each battling for sound supremacy, here software can provide a blank canvas for pure audio creation.

Lars Carlsson, head of business development for automotive at Dirac, explained that utilising software in this way opens up new audio opportunities. In terms of a business-to-consumer relationship, different license lengths could be purchased to cover a car for a month, a year or a lifetime, thanks to OTA technology. This could provide a system upgrade, specific tuning or even replicating the audio thumbprint of a world-famous music hall.

Considering cybersecurity

However, all the potential rewards for developing SDVs do not come without risks and one of the most concerning is cyber threats. As the amount of software in a vehicle surges and it becomes increasingly connected, its ‘attack surface’ grows opening up more space for cyber threats.

‘Embedded software came of age when cybersecurity issues were not a concern. Unfortunately, a significant part of existing automotive development practice still is coming to terms with this understanding,’ Giallorenzo said. ‘Modern software acknowledges that, in exchange for the tremendous benefits that connectivity provides, we need to actively manage cybersecurity concerns and build software to remove vulnerabilities whenever possible.’

Raz Meridor, C2A Security‘s executive vice president of product and strategy, told Autovista24 that SDVs are not like connected cameras or laptops. Vehicles are physical products capable of moving from point A to B, and they are required to meet strict regulatory guidelines and safety standards.

However, SDVs are even changing how regulators work. The United Nations adopted fresh regulations to ensure manufacturers carry out risk assessments, secure vehicles by design, respond to incidents, and provide security updates.

‘Electric vehicles and their ecosystem – charging stations, grid, battery vendors, others, will most likely push regulators to closely examine how they impact the physical and digital safety of vehicles, the passengers and the community around them,’ Meridor said.

Security solutions

These cybersecurity threats and regulations mean automotive companies need to rise to a mounting challenge. This means building up best security practices, following new testing techniques and designing software with cybersecurity in mind, not added as an afterthought.

While SDVs do expose larger attack surfaces, they could also provide greater protection. Heinlein explained that software does allow carmakers to adopt sophisticated and dynamic cybersecurity solutions, far beyond what is currently possible.

‘For example, Sonatus showed a vehicle security platform concept at CES this year that leverages software in the vehicle and in the cloud to provide multi-layered security across networks, internal and external to detect and prevent cyber risks, such as malware attacks,’ he said.

Meridor acknowledged the amount of work currently being carried out in the automotive industry to protect against these risks. Covering the entire value chain, this ranges from investing heavily into in-house security teams, working vendors, and widespread collaboration. But with a wider lack of experts in the cybersecurity industry, carmakers could not reinvent the wheel.

This is where collaboration with software and cybersecurity specialists can come into play. C2A Security has its own development, security, and operations (DevSecOps) platform called EVSec. Meridor described it as ‘the only DevSecOps platform for carmakers and mobility companies, supporting the vehicle product security lifecycle from the development to the operations and back, providing full automation throughout the product lifecycle, streamlining security work and data flow for a single pane of glass and compliant cybersecurity.’

So, SDVs have a great amount to offer and could represent a fundamental shift in human mobility. However, the realities of such progress must be balanced with the accompanying risks as carmakers, regulators, and security experts establish and enforce solutions.