Software a Key Differentiator in Cars of the Future

Article By : Nitin Dahad

Car CEOs talk chips, software, connectivity, data, and over-the-air updates, plus Elon Musk says we are quite close to self-driving that is safer than human driving,

When CEOs of car manufacturers talk about chips, software, connectivity, data, and over-the-air updates, you might wonder if you are a technology conference. But these were the common themes among most of the speakers at this week’s Financial Times Future of the Car conference in London, U.K. In addition to debating how software defined cars were the future, there was also lip service to the widely acknowledged chip shortages, as well as battery raw materials and related supply challenges.

There are of course many facets to why software is important. It allows for brand differentiation, it allows new services to be delivered over the lifetime of the car, it allows for new mobility models, and more. Patrick Hertzke, a partner at McKinsey & Company, highlighted the significant value through hardware and software on demand for example.

FT car conference McKinsey slide
Patrick Hertzke of McKinsey & Company highlighted the significant value through hardware and software on demand. (Image: Nitin Dahad)

The car literally is now becoming a smartphone on wheels, or as one speaker put it, ‘an intelligent lump of metal’. This is driving the trend toward ‘connected, autonomous, electric and shared’ mobility, with a transformation of vehicle ownership into one of vehicle ‘usership’. This would lead multi-use, multi-environment deployment of cars which in turn would need to address the challenges of lifecycle management as well as things like battery lifecycle management.

Recently appointed CEO of Volvo Cars, Jim Rowan, who himself has a background in software and technology, emphasized that with the shift to electric vehicles, there’s a need to appeal to the new digital native generation who expect the smartphone type experience in the car as well. That means a seamless experience between the home, the phone and the car. He particularly stressed the need to better understand silicon to a much deeper level, and then what they need to do on the software stack. This needed to be done with safety in mind, at silicon level, firmware level, and then through the various software applications.

Several speakers talked about the opportunity software offered to differentiate a carmaker’s brands. Yves Bonnefont, chief software officer at Stellantis, said, “It’s an excellent way of customizing and magnifying the DNA of our brand,” a view echoed by Knut Krosche, head of digital business and mobility services at CARIAD.

Enrico Salvatori, senior vice president & president of Qualcomm Europe/MEA, highlighted his company’s partnerships with Volkswagen Group and BMW to demonstrate the importance of software. Earlier this month, CARIAD, the Volkswagen Group’s software company said it would use Qualcomm Technologies’ Snapdragon Ride platform portfolio SoCs for CARIAD’s software platform for assisted and automated driving functions up to Level 4. These would help it develop a standardized and scalable compute platform targeted for group vehicles from the middle of the decade. CARIAD believes this will strengthen its own competencies in the definition of optimized high-performance semiconductors, where software and hardware are perfectly matched in order to achieve the best possible performance and efficiency of central computer systems.

Salvatori also highlighted Qualcomm Technologies’ relationship with BMW Group and Arriver Software, announced earlier this year – the three are jointly developing next-generation AD technologies ranging from New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), Level 2 advanced driving assistance systems to Level 3 high automated driving functionalities. They will focus on creating a scalable platform for automated driving based on a common reference architecture, sensor-set specifications, and safety requirements with joint development, toolchain, and a data center for storage, reprocessing, and simulation.

Stellantis also talks about merging its software domains onto low power Snapdragon Automotive platforms across all its major vehicles and transforming them through a software-defined approach. It will use Snapdragon Cockpit platforms to power in-car communication and infotainment systems for its STLA SmartCockpit, which is being designed and engineered together with Amazon and Foxconn. This platform is engineered to deliver high-definition graphics to the touch and voice-controlled cockpit console, and also deliver a fully immersive in-cabin experience, enabling premium audio and crystal-clear voice communications throughout the vehicle’s cabin.

The Snapdragon Cockpit platforms will also be used to enhance its STLA Brain, enabling enhanced digital intelligence for convenience and safety, and helping to enhance the in-vehicle personal assistant capabilities with highly intuitive artificial intelligence (AI) features. The first application will be in the Maserati brand to power the next generation Stellantis infotainment system.

User experience must be top notch

FT car conference Asa Tamsons closeup- Ericsson
Asa Tamsons (Image: Nitin Dahad)

User experience is what most car companies were saying needed to be top notch in order to maintain an edge and win or maintain customers, and again, this is driven by software. Asa Tamsons, a senior vice president at Ericsson, said most established car OEMs now have good software teams, which will drive innovation both in new business models for 5G in cars, as well as user experience. She is a fan of Tesla though and said, “There are two things that Tesla does well – one is that the company is obsessed with user experience; and the second is having software competence in house, which is quite fundamental to its success.” She added, “The app economy reinvented consumer experience [for phones], and we are now on a similar journey in the automotive industry.”

And on Tesla’s software, Elon Musk stole the show with a keynote talk on the second day of the conference. While he made headlines around the world for his answer to a question about Twitter and a former U.S. President, he spoke on a wide range of relevant topics for the audience at the conference. This covered everything from the lunch in 2003 that eventually gave birth to Tesla Motors, including the failed first prototypes built around a Lotus Elise chassis and AC Propulsion powertrain, to his EV production targets for 2030, thoughts on battery raw materials, and the significant market in China for EVs.
FT car conference - Elon Musk - Tesla
Elon Musk speaking live via video link at the FT Car of the Future conference in London, said, “We are quite close to self-driving that is safer than human driving, and I guess we’ll get there later this year. We’ll get to a safety level far better [10x] than humans.” (Image: Nitin Dahad)

But it’s Tesla’s progress on autonomy that seems to be infectious – despite past claims on the status of autonomy. He said software is important and he should know, since he wrote software for 20 years. “Our AI team [developing autopilot] is incredibly talented, in fact the best real-world AI team in the world. We’re not close to seeing anyone else doing real-world AI that is anywhere as close, apart from Tesla.” Based on this, he said, “We are quite close to self-driving that is safer than human driving, and I guess we’ll get there later this year. We’ll get to a safety level far better [10x] than humans.”

Well, I guess even if he is right, self-driving cars would still be vulnerable to human judgment error both from within and from surrounding vehicles and pedestrians.

This article was originally published on Embedded.

Nitin Dahad is a correspondent for EE Times, EE Times Europe and also Editor-in-Chief of With 35 years in the electronics industry, he’s had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He’s also worked with many of the big names—including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.


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