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Zonal E/E Architecture

Going Modular: The Software-Defined Vehicle at Its Best

September 15, 2022

It was not that many years ago that car dashboards did not have any screens. Remember this?

software defined vehicle

The current generation of drivers probably cannot even fathom a car without a touch screen and even those in their simplest forms, are quickly becoming obsolete. Before we know it, dashboards will look and function in a similar manner to smartphone and smartTV screens, complete with fully functioning app stores full of instantly downloadable features.

And these apps won’t just allow you to use voice commands to send an email or play your kids’ favorite shows to keep them quiet in the backseat. Soon, drivers will be able to download apps for steering adjustments, brakes, engine performance, tire pressure, and more. All of this is coming as a result of changing consumer habits and demands. For today’s drivers, cars are no longer simply about getting from point A to point B, but are all about getting the best experience along the way.

There’s no question that this experience has to be software-driven, but car manufacturers are still struggling with the best way to make the shift to the software-driven vehicle. A key part of the answer lies in modularity.

Modularity and the Software-Defined Vehicle

Every driver is looking for the best possible driving experience, but each driver has their own definition of the “best possible.” OEMs have their work cut out for them trying to meet each individual customer’s unique needs when it comes to safety, security, productivity, comfort, communication, convenience, entertainment, and more.

Modular components that can be customized mean allowing each customer to get exactly what they are looking for. The moment a potential customer expresses interest in a particular brand, the process begins, but their tastes and demands may change over time during the sales process and ownership period. With modular components, the salesperson or service rep can help ensure that the customer always has the in-car features they want without having to trade in the entire vehicle each time a new app or an upgrade is released.

Full personalization will not be limited just to the vehicle itself, but also to other services that an OEM might offer, including financing and insurance. For example, each driver may receive personalized suggestions on an ongoing basis based on their individual activity and performance.

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The App Store of the Future

Drivers will be able to access these modular services via an app store. In the same way that any smartphone user can visit the app store and choose how to customize their phone based on how they want to use it, OEMs and other aftermarket providers will be able to create apps that drivers can download to fully customize and personalize their driving experience.

The changing architecture of the software-defined vehicle will allow for the installation of “plug and play” ECUs that can be used by the apps that users will be able to download at will. In families with multiple drivers, each driver can have their own profile that is activated when they use the car. A teenager’s profile might include geofencing, a lower maximum speed, and a limit to the number of passengers in the vehicle, while an elderly driver’s profile might include large text on screens, louder warning signals, and adjustments for slower reaction times.

From Car to “Platform”

A new type of OEM is emerging, one that is not an automotive company building a “car” but rather a tech company that is building a “computer network on wheels.” They are essentially providing a platform for a driver to customize with software to use for their unique mobility and transportation needs.

While these new players, such as Tesla, Rivian, Nio and more, have a technological advantage over the legacy OEMs, they are lacking the significant brand awareness and large market share that the legacies have. To win over customers, they must offer a greatly enhanced user experience. Fortunately, they can do this largely due to the fact that they are not constrained by the traditional vehicle architecture. Rather than trying to adapt CAN bus backbones to meet the needs of the modern driver, these companies are starting out with Ethernet connections, allowing them to offer plug and play modularity from the get-go.

Where traditional vehicles require a separate ECU for each new function, newer OEMs are shifting to a zonal architecture in which functionality is completely decoupled from physical hardware, eliminating the need for complex wiring and additional hardware. They also use service-oriented architecture (SOA) that allows for maximum modularity while streamlining the development and deployment process of new features.

The resulting flexibility is a huge advantage and means that these car manufacturers provide drivers with the instant gratification and personalized experience that they crave. It’s a win-win for the OEMs as well because they can use the same compute platform as the basis for all of their vehicles and then provide different software-based functions depending on the level of the car, with luxury vehicles offering more premium services and lower-end vehicles offering less.

Modularity is Changing the Game

For new OEMs and legacy companies alike, modularity is the key to unlocking new revenue streams and keeping customers happy.

For example, Volkswagen and Volvo are both considering ways to offer a pay-as-you-go subscription for an autonomous driving experience, allowing drivers to choose to temporarily add autonomous driving to their car’s capabilities. Imagine the possibilities when drivers are presented with hundreds of small upgrades they can “download” to their cars, improving their driving experience without having to replace the car completely.

With each download, the automakers will receive priceless data about subscriber behavior that can be used to increase sales and efficiency. The reduced development cycle will allow them to leverage this data quickly and profitably, while keeping customers happy and loyal.


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