The connected car: It's all about integration

February 01, 2014

Software integration and consolidation - not just new features and functions - will drive the next wave of innovation in the auto industry.


The concept car has always been at the heart of automotive innovation. Everyone who loves cars – from engineers to auto executives to consumers – loves to imagine what the car of the future will look like, what it will be capable of, what jaw-dropping new features it will deliver. Today the buzz is about the “connected car,” a sleek, intelligent, digital appliance on wheels where convenience, comfort, safety, and performance merge with powerful network technologies to keep drivers and passengers connected on the go.

It’s a beautiful vision, but there seems to be a major disconnect when it comes to how that vision will come to fruition because the connected car is not only about new features and functions, it’s also about software – before the digital car of the future can actually be built, the complexities of software integration and consolidation must be tamed.

Software: The key to the connected car

The auto industry has seen the volume of software in vehicles skyrocket in the last few years. Today the Mercedes-Benz S500 sedan and the plug-in Chevrolet Volt hybrid both contain more than 10 million lines of software code, which is more than you’ll find in an F-35 fighter jet.

Automakers understand that software has become the key to competitive differentiation, just as it has in the mobile phone industry. Software already drives everything from navigation systems to In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) to air conditioning, and now it is driving new car purchase decisions too. Car buyers want to know what apps they can download to do everything from starting the engine remotely to locking doors to finding music, and they want to be able to take advantage of new software-based capabilities as they emerge.

However, we’re fast approaching a point where software will become an obstacle to innovation rather than the engine of invention. If the industry cannot find a way to integrate and consolidate software, exponential increases in complexity will ensure that the connected car remains a vision, not a reality.

Integration: Slashing the hidden costs of complexity

It’s obvious that higher complexity means slower software development timeframes and higher development costs. As development options continue to proliferate with multiple platforms, Operating Systems (OSs), networks, toolsets, and the like, permutations become harder to manage, interactions between systems become harder to test and debug, certification requirements become more complex, and the list goes on.

What’s not so obvious is that as complexity grows, the ability to innovate shrinks. Why? Because if more and more of your development time and resources are spent managing development options, associated requirements, and integration testing, less time, money, expertise, and creative energy are available for invention.

Consider this from another perspective: cutting complexity exposes good ideas faster and reduces the cost of bad ideas. Engineers and executives alike understand that nothing dies harder than a bad idea, but with lower complexity it’s easier to test every idea quickly. So bad ideas fail faster, good ideas come to light sooner, the pace of innovation accelerates, and the total cost of innovation falls.

Similarly, a reduction in complexity can translate to a better experience because engineers can receive user feedback sooner and iterate accordingly. Suddenly developers are on the front lines of customer engagement.

The question is, what can be done to reduce software complexity given the realities of today’s automotive marketplace and development practices? The answer is software integration rather than hardware integration, and there are multiple facets of software integration that are relevant to the auto industry.

Electronic Control Unit (ECU) consolidation

The number of ECUs in the average car has doubled in the past ten years, and many cars now incorporate more than 125 separate ECUs. Many of the ECUs are also increasingly complex, with multilayered runtime environments, multi-source software, multicore CPUs, and huge code bases; for example, a single ECU dedicated to IVI functions could contain more than two millions lines of code.

Consolidation of ECUs would not only save space and allow for more efficient use of power, it could also reduce complexity by moving integration efforts from hardware to software integration. That is why ECU consolidation is a key objective for many automakers and OEMs.

One model that holds considerable promise for ECU consolidation is the centralization of compute power into function-oriented regions. Essentially, the software functionality could be decoupled from the underlying hardware using virtualization technology. This approach would allow data processing resources to be applied more efficiently and would create the opportunity to consolidate a large number of software-driven functions onto a smaller number of more powerful hardware platforms. For example, navigation-related systems or disparate IVI components could share a common compute platform. Equally important, with this approach legacy software and individual functions could be upgraded or replaced over the air at any time, eliminating the need to bring the car in for servicing to deal with software issues.

Increased standardization on open source platforms: In general, consolidation is made possible by standardization. The auto industry has already taken key steps to define and deliver standards that will remove complexity from the development process. The GENIVI Alliance, for example, has been instrumental in creating standards for Linux-based IVI systems.

The next step is to standardize entire runtime platforms tuned for specific functions. One example is the Wind River Platform for Infotainment, a Linux-based, GENIVI-compliant runtime platform specifically tuned for the IVI market. The platform takes full advantage of the Yocto Project, an open source collaboration that provides templates, tools, and methods to help create custom Linux-based systems for embedded products regardless of hardware architecture. This approach can reduce the overall development cost of commercial IVI and telematics systems, while also minimizing project risks and timelines.

Security integration

Embedded devices in automobiles are subject to the same security threats as any other device, with a processor, OS, and applications running on it, and both the volume and diversity of security attacks is multiplying quickly. Recent well-publicized malware attacks on Android devices are only the tip of the iceberg, while safety-critical automotive systems such as brakes, ignition systems, and door locks are also vulnerable.

The threat is real and must be addressed. One approach to this issue is a more holistic, integrated approach to device security – one that mitigates security threats at every layer of the development stack – including the hardware platform, virtualization technology, OS, network stack or other communications middleware, data packets being sent across the network, and applications.

Many device manufacturers are now conducting end-to-end system security threat assessments that look at security issues not just from the developer’s viewpoint, but also from the perspective of manufacturers, operators, and even drivers and passengers. This holistic approach will make it possible to better understand security threats and to integrate security technologies from multiple vendors, thereby reducing both complexity and risk.

Cloud and multimedia connectivity

Consumers want their cars to support and expand upon the capabilities of the mobile devices they carry with them. For automakers, this raises the question of how best to integrate consumer electronic services into the car. Technological advancements in cloud computing, mobile computing, and multimedia connectivity can make a new generation of connected car services possible if they can be integrated into the head unit, which acts as the hub between automotive safety components and the consumer.

Wind River is attempting to address this need through standards-based protocols for the automotive industry –basic, certified middleware stacks that can be used by all device manufacturers to ensure devices can communicate with all other devices built to the standard. In addition, Wind River is expanding the use of other key industry standards within the platform so that the company’s ecosystem of partners can simply take the stack and integrate it into their products with no issues. This ability will enable automotive device manufacturers to select Wind River ecosystem solutions to lower their barriers to entry. For example, Wind River Connectivity Solution Accelerator for Linux allows consumers to connect their Apple devices to a car’s central unit, addressing the need for portable connectivity with support for a wide range of devices, including the latest Apple devices and iOS connectivity accessory protocols (iAPs), as well as a growing set of new features.

Consolidation of the connected car

A recent article in USA Today asked, “is the love affair with the automobile over?” Increasingly, consumers are looking at their cars as appliances, with little or no personal attachment. Consumers are simply looking for an intelligently designed, economical, reliable machine, a dangerous shift for automakers because it leads to less driving, fewer new purchases, and less brand loyalty.

Reducing system-level complexity is a vital first step toward solving this issue. By integrating and consolidating more software components, automakers will empower themselves to spend more time creating the innovative features and functions that will excite car buyers.

Georg Doll is General Manager of Automotive Solutions at Wind River, an Intel company.

Wind River Systems