By 2020, there will be 250 million connected vehicles on the road according to Gartner Group while the value of the market for connected car services will grow to $148 billion according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). These estimates triple the amount of car connectivity from today’s levels.
PwC claims this growth is pushed not only by the demand for connected car components but also by the rise of new digital business opportunities. Those new opportunities are fueled in part by the ability to use the car’s connection to change the in-vehicle software to adapt to an evolving set of needs.
The capability to completely reimagine a device’s functionality through software — either loaded remotely or replaced over the air without requiring a trip back to the factory — is a powerful concept that has impacted many industries. Car software updates can add new functions and features but we are at just the edge of this revolution for the car. To understand how this might impact the automotive industry, let’s examine a couple of other industries.
Software Defined Radio
Software Defined Radio (SDR) was born about two decades ago when some very smart people realized that they could replace a radio’s tuners and filters with software. Rather than using capacitors and resistors, Software Defined Radio (SDR) uses software-based filtering algorithms to select specific frequencies. Those algorithms are downloadable and changeable over the life of the radio, making it infinitely flexible. The military was the first to drive early SDR applications but consistent funding and hardware improvements culminated in the first commercially available SDR system around 1995. The power of using a single device to receive and transmit on any frequency was an irresistible lure that helped create a place for SDR not only in the military, but also in radio astronomy, transportation, public safety, and so on.
This concept of using software to define the functionality of a piece of hardware turned out to be such a success that other instantiations soon followed.
Software Defined Network
The next software defined success was the Software Defined Network (SDN). SDN separated network control from other functions, allowing people to build dynamic networks where software provided the logic for making decisions on where data was sent instead of relying on hardware linked ports. SDN ushered in the cloud-computing era by delivering on the speed and agility required for rapidly deploying new applications and services.
Software Defined Storage
Next up was Software Defined Storage (SDS), a system for managing data independent of hardware by distributing files and databases across many multiple servers — an absolute must for the massive data challenges that came with huge telescopic arrays, genomic data mapping, particle-physics experiments, and so on.
I could go on but suffice it to say that software defined technology has radically changed our world. Redefining features through software not only extends the capabilities of many systems but also their usable lifespan. Of course, this can only go so far since most systems rely on some form of hardware base component — like antennas for SDR, networking cable for SDN, and servers for SDS. Even so, industries estimate that a software-defined architecture can extend the life of hardware by as much as 7-10 years.
Software Defined Car™
Is it any wonder then that automakers are now considering the Software Defined Car™ (SDC)? Make no mistake — SDC is not “just” about downloading new apps to the car. It is about letting the car’s function be defined by software components that stitch together the environmental sensors, safety systems, mechanical linkages, and visual interfaces to build a vehicle where the function can be redefined after it has shipped.
Like its predecessors, SDC can enable a whole host of revolutionary changes and stretch the adaptability of the car all the way to the end of its physical lifespan — new innovations and feature improvements to meet changing consumer demands the entire time the car is in service. It is arguably in its infancy but we are already seeing the first rollout of SDC through Tesla Motors, a move that will gradually enable the autonomous car through a series of software upgrades.
Most people think this fundamental paradigm shift is something that is only available to a vehicle that has been built from the ground up with a software-defined architecture. The good news is that most cars built today have a major amount of software that can in fact be updated with the right tools and technology.
It is hard to know what will be next, but one thing is for certain SDC is a concept that has been years in the making and it’s time has come. Cars have the power to be far more capable than they are when they leave the assembly line, and the companies who leverage that capability will define the future of automotive.
Mahbubul Alam, CTO