Automotive Software: Where Are We Going?

Article By : Egil Juliussen

The maturation of automotive software platforms is making it progressively easier to do business in the automotive industry...

In my previous column I talked about the growing importance of automotive software and used the create-make-market-use concept to show how different software is from hardware. The summary of this column is that a strategy of using software platform is the best way to succeed in automotive software market.

Software is notoriously difficult to plan and execute — it is especially hard to estimate the completion time of large software projects. This has been true since the 1960s and a famous book called “The Mythical Man-Month” documents this fact. The book was published in 1975 and updated in 1995 by Fred Brooks. Software project completion issues can be summarized by Brooks’s law: Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later!

This column will explore the current status of automotive software platforms. Any software platform relies on a hardware platform that is required for programs to run. I will look at which automotive software segment have important platforms and some of the key products. But first it is important to understand what software platforms are and their advantages and disadvantages.

Platform overview

A platform is a technology that enables the creation of similar and future products that leverage past product development efforts. The result is that many products or families of products can be developed with much lower costs than developing each product separately. In the auto industry common chassis platforms with different engines, interiors and form factors are used extensively. BEV platforms are now an important trend in the auto industry. Platforms are also very common in the computer industry and often layers of platforms are used ranging from processor platforms and hardware platforms to software platforms and application platforms.


Automotive Electronics: Embrace Software or Fall Behind

The use of software platforms has been a key strategy in every segment of the computer industry — from mainframes and minicomputers to PCs and tablets. Software platforms are also the basis for smartphones and became the key factor giving smartphone leadership to Apple iPhone and Google Android. Software platforms are also growing in importance in the auto industry and are especially important for the emerging software defined car.

Software platforms have many advantages that grow as the ecosystem around each platform expands. Most of these advantages are due to the benefits from traditional values of using building blocks that are re-usable and can be updated. Software platforms usually have better code reliability with each new version. This is due to re-using most of the existing code with and limited new code added. This process is good at finding and fixing bugs while introducing fewer new bugs. The main advantage is the lower cost of re-using a software platform and shorter time to market.

Software platforms have disadvantages too. Software code is usually larger and program execution is usually slower. More hardware may also be needed. However, the platform advantages outweigh the disadvantages in most cases.

A software platform is usually a collection of many software modules to accomplish specific functionality. But it could also be small programs that are used in many different larger platforms. Hence, software platforms have large variations in code size and complexity. The key is to re-use software modules to save development and maintenance costs and increase reliability by lowering the number of total software bugs.

The key to a software platform is the application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow the modular building block structure and communication between the software modules or platforms. The APIs for a specific software segment, if successful, create a growing ecosystem of additional compatible software modules that over time greatly increases the value and use-cases of the platform.

Automotive software platforms

Software platforms for autos are growing rapidly and have had a profound impact on the whole auto software industry with more expected in the next decade and beyond. The next table summarizes the status of key software platforms used in the automotive industry. There are many more that are not included with software development being the most significant that is not covered. The next sections have summary information for each of the software platform segments in the table.

Click image for larger view. (Source: Egil Juliussen)

Operating systems

All automotive ECUs need a control program that manage a variety of programs that control the hardware components and the applications each ECU is designed to do. An auto industry consortium developed and continues to expand the capability of its AUTOSAR platform. AUTOSAR is a layered software architecture with standard APIs to ECU applications. It also has a hardware independent interface to most microprocessor architectures used in the auto industry. AUTOSAR is the leading software platform for driving related and other traditional auto ECUs. However, AUTOSAR cannot manage ECUs with large and complex software code such as infotainment systems.

This opened the door for operating systems used in the high-tech industry to be adapted to automotive systems. This made the OS the first high-tech software platform with a big impact on the auto industry. Currently infotainment systems and telematics systems use a high-tech OS. Domain ECUs also use a high-tech OS, with ADAS moving towards such OS platforms.

Some of the safety critical ECUs require an OS with certifications such as ISO 26262 and currently no Linux versions have such certifications. Such ECUs favor QNX and Green Hills and similar operating systems with safety certification.

Infotainment is the highest volume systems using an OS. The OS platform is mostly a battle between QNX and multiple Linux versions such as AGL, Android and GENIVI compatible versions. Google’s Android version is growing rapidly. Android success is due to the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), that was founded in 2014. Currently over 60 OEM brands are members of OAA including most of the leading OEMs such as Chrysler, Fiat, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Renault, Toyota and VW.

An OS platform usually has lots of so-called middleware that are required for a variety of functionality. Middleware can be described as software glue. Middleware provides services to applications that are not available from the core operating system. Middleware range from utility software to software drivers for auto hardware interfaces. HMI or user interfaces are often classified as middleware.

Hypervisor OS

A hypervisor is a small software platform for managing multiple OS platforms and their apps. It may also be called a virtual machine monitor (VMM), which is software that runs virtual machines. Virtualization has been used in the computer industry since the 1960s and is a key tech for IT data centers. Hypervisors is growing in importance for automotive software because it solves problems and can be a cost saving solution.

Two current examples show the advantage of a hypervisor. The backup monitor that are now required on all U.S. vehicles sold and is a safety critical system. The display in the infotainment system is ideal for the backup display, but it cannot be interfaced with a Linux OS since it does not have safety critical certification. The solution is to use a hypervisor that combine Linux with QNX or Green Hills OS or another OS with safety-certification.

The integration of the instrument cluster and the infotainment system is another example where a hypervisor is the solution. Domain ECUs are also likely applications for hypervisors.

Telematics systems

Telematics systems have an embedded software platform that interact with a SaaS platform that provide the telematics services. The on-board telematics system uses an OS and QNX is the leading platform due to its use in OnStar. The leading Tier 1 suppliers provide the telematics software and hardware system. Some of the leading infotainment Tier 1 suppliers are also leading telematics system suppliers.

The SaaS software platforms for telematics systems are proprietary by telematics service provider (TSP) such as OnStar, SiriusXM, Verizon Telematics and WirelessCar. OnStar is only used by GM, but the other TSPs have multiple OEM customers. WirelessCar is now majority owned by VW and the extra resources is likely to expand its importance.

The TSPs are starting to leverage the cloud capabilities of Microsoft, AWS and Google as these companies are adding SaaS platforms for connected car functions.

Infotainment systems

High-end infotainment systems are currently the most complex automotive software system in volume production. Such systems usually have complicated display systems with audio entertainment, navigation systems and many applications. There are connections to telematics systems and links to instrument cluster and HUD (head-up display) when available. Infotainment also has extensive HMI for control and interaction by the driver or passenger. There is also connection to the smartphone apps integration software platform and Virtual Private Assistant (VPA) software, which are described in the next sections. Infotainment systems also integrate with OTA and cybersecurity software, that will be summarized in a later column.

This means that multiple software platforms are used in infotainment or connected to the infotainment system. The OS is the key software platform that manage directly or indirectly all infotainment related software. In infotainment systems, Linux versions as a group now have the largest market share. Google’ Android is growing in importance. However, which OEM use what infotainment OS vary greatly.

Navigation software platform are used in many infotainment systems—about 25% with large regional variations. The navigation software platforms are usually supplied by companies focused on navigation applications in automotive and other segments. Tier 1 suppliers may also provide navigation software.

Most infotainment systems are now using displays and the average size is growing each year. Currently over 60% of infotainment systems use a display—including navigation systems. Some high-end display-based infotainment systems use a GPU to get high performance display systems.

Smartphone apps integration

The smartphone is now an indispensable part of a driver’s life. Most drivers want to use the smartphone apps as part of the infotainment system to lower driver distraction. Some of the OEMs developed their own smartphone apps integration software platforms. However, the popularity of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto has overwhelmed other versions. Many of the infotainment systems include both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto platforms to be compatible with the vast majority of smartphones in-use. Baidu CarLife, is primarily used in China where it has a strong position since Android Auto is currently not available in China.

The popularity of the CarPlay and Android Auto is due to two main factors: better user interface familiarity and many car-centric apps for both platforms. However, the apps for an iPhone or Android smartphones do not work as a CarPlay or Android Auto apps. Any smartphone app must be modified to work with CarPlay or Android Auto. The most popular apps are maps, parking and traffic information, music, podcasts, audio books, news, messages and calendar.

There are over 500 auto models that work with Apple CarPlay from over 65 car brands. Android Auto works with about 60 auto brands with similar number of models as CarPlay.

Virtual private assistant

Voice assistants or Virtual Private Assistant (VPA) are making a strong showing in automotive. Many drivers use VPAs at home or via their smartphones. The OEMs tried their own versions of VPA, but the high-tech VPA software platforms have taken over. The leading VPA suppliers are the same as in smarthomes and smartphones—Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri. Advances in AI-based speech recognition has made VPAs desirable in the car due to less driver distraction.

There are two ways of using VPAs in the car—via smartphone apps integration such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto or as separate VPA software integration platform in the infotainment system. Alexa leads in VPA integration in the infotainment system, with Google Assistant as a strong second. Apple Siri is primarily used via CarPlay as Apple leads the smartphone apps integration. Alexa and Google Assistant are also used via smartphone apps integration.

More information

In the next column I will look at a few more auto software platforms such as OTA, cybersecurity, ADAS and autonomous vehicles. I will also give you some perspectives on auto software costs. If you need detailed information on automotive software platform use, IHS Markit tracks many of the software platform sold by auto brand, model and countries—including historical data and forecasts by year. In most cases, this includes supplier and other information.

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