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The Latest Real-Life Updates: How Software-Defined Vehicles Are Shaping Our Automotive Future

AUTOMOTIVE / 01.03.24 / Steve Kovsky

MotorTrend and industry leaders discuss the present and coming impact of SDVs in car-making.

When it comes to automotive innovation, electrification may grab all the headlines, but the sudden ubiquity of software in today’s vehicles is even more revolutionary. The ability to not only repair, but to actually improve cars with a simple over-the-air (OTA) software update has radically altered the industry. The repercussions of these changes have been surprising, and more aftershocks are coming. To better understand the trends disrupting the automotive industry, media powerhouse MotorTrend recently convened a panel of experts to address the topic.

Taking place at the 2023 LA Auto Show in November, the "Software-Defined Vehicles: Forget OTA, Let's Update IRL (In Real Life)" panel was moderated by MotorTrend Head of Editorial Ed Loh, who has spent the last year or more exploring and covering the accelerating impact of software in today’s personal transportation.

Software-defined vehicles, or SDVs, are taking over the market, and they are not limited by any slowdowns in electric vehicle adoption, because “SDVs are not just EVs,” says Loh. “Software governs every part of the vehicle,” these days, regardless of whether it runs on gas, batteries, or some more exotic source of locomotion.

Panelist Stefano Marzani, worldwide tech lead for software-defined vehicles at AWS (Amazon Web Services), adds that the disruption from this shift to SDV designs should not be underestimated. “This is a transformative moment. We will have more software and artificial intelligence (AI). To support that, we must change the product.”

Watch the video (below) or read on for excerpts.

Autonomous Driving Progress and Challenges

Loh wastes no time in leading the panel into challenging topics, such as the stutter-step emergence of full self-driving capability, which remains one of the biggest challenges facing SDV designers. 

“Autonomous (driving) is always further out than people think,” says Lucid Motors’ Senior Vice President of Digital Michael Bell. “It's easy to do a demo, but making something that can drive in an urban environment safely is difficult. Autonomous vehicles will also be held to a higher standard than human drivers.” In fact, Bell continues, “Some technology has been rolled out beyond what it's capable of. That hurts the entire industry because people think it's not safe.”

“Full autonomy will take a long time to arrive,” acknowledges Mercedes-Benz President and CEO of Research & Development for North America Philipp Skogstad. “We are so far the only company in the world to achieve commercial SAE Level Three certification in Germany, with cars in customer hands for over a year, and now also in Nevada and California. We are very cautious because safety is our responsibility.”

BlackBerry IVY Business Development Vice President Niko Hammond says there has been aggressive development in driving autonomy, but “That's leveling out around Level Two Plus and Level Three, with safety central.” The panel agrees that it will take another five to 10 years for some autonomous technology to arrive safely in the hands of consumers. “You want to be fast, but you don't want to be irresponsibly fast,” explains Skogstad.

“This is particularly relevant for OTA updates,” says Marzano. “Autonomous driving is not just pushing new software to the car. It's a big loop. It's collecting data, generating new software, and deploying it for testing purposes in as many vehicles as possible. It doesn't mean it's in control of the car. It's there for testing but exposed to real conditions, to see if it’s ready for production, and then you can roll it out.”

ChatGPT for Drivers

Mercedes-Benz was also first to introduce generative artificial intelligence into its cars’ voice assistance using ChatGPT in live customer trials. “We set it up as a beta program because we wanted to get customer responses, and we now have over 900,000 vehicles eligible,” says Skogstad. “Customers are now using their voice assistant much more than before. The feedback was very positive.” 

We can expect more examples of ChatGPT and other forms of AI on the road in the months and years ahead, according to the panel.

Compute Power in The Car

“A big part of the transformation is what technology can enable,” adds Hammond. Marzani agrees: “The new generation of cars will be based on high-performance computers. They will have at least 10 and up to 60 cores.” 

OTA updates will be able to take advantage of this huge processing power. “Customers expect cars to get better over time, unlike ten years ago,” says Bell. “Customers expect new features to be delivered like an iPhone. An OEM can’t just be finished and sit there.” 

OTA updating has therefore become essential. “You must be a technology company to produce world-leading vehicles these days,” says Bell. Hammond adds: “You should wake up and it should be better. But people still worry about safety.”

Skogstad reminds the audience that success is ultimately based on trust. Every new feature can potentially introduce risk, so it must be thoroughly tested and subject to all applicable safety standards prior to release. “For general consumers,” explains Hammond, “if you're sending an update to a vehicle, there must be an isolation of safety-critical features such as ADAS versus a change to the heads-up display or cockpit.”

The Next Decade of Software-Defined Vehicles

So, what new advances lie ahead in the SDV-empowered automotive industry? Skogstad suggests that the industry will move incrementally. Original equipment makers (OEMs) like Mercedes are constantly making incremental advancements, even though they may seem like big leaps when they are ultimately introduced to the public. “Technology ‘revolutions’ only happen to those who are not watching. Everything else is evolution.” 

BlackBerry QNX will continue to play a leading role in software innovation for SDVs. Its software supports more than 235 million vehicles currently on the road, and 24 of the top 25 EV manufacturers. To further support software leadership throughout the automotive industry, MotorTrend and BlackBerry will be hosting the second annual SDV Innovator Awards at CES 2024 in Las Vegas in January 2024. “It has been awesome to see the rapid pace of innovation,” says BlackBerry’s Hammond.

“It's a very exciting time,” agrees Marzani. “We are seeing safer cars thanks to ADAS.” 

In addition, unforeseen new experiences are also being made available to consumers via software advances, he says. “Recently, a start-up produced behavioral skills for electric vehicles, where they can mimic the sound and behavior of a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, because that's fully software-defined. This means not just providing features for infotainment, but going as deep as modifying the behavior of the car.”

The electrified SDV could also play a bigger role in people’s lives than just providing their transportation. “Most people’s cars sit unused for 95% of the day,” says Bell. “Every Lucid car can do bi-directional charging — so we can not only charge the car, but the car can also charge your house, or another car, or the grid. You can harvest free solar energy into your car, then plug it into your house and power that to help smooth out peak demand with the electric grid for a greener environment. 

Bell expects the new vehicle-to-grid technology to expand significantly as more people begin to understand its uses and significance. “It's potentially huge because it makes the car useful when you're not driving it. People talk about how great it is to watch Netflix in your car. But if I could do something with it when I'm not driving it, that makes the car an indispensable part of my life.”

The full video of this panel can be viewed above. 
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Steve Kovsky

About Steve Kovsky

Steve Kovsky is former Editorial Director at BlackBerry.