What Is a Software-Defined Vehicle?


“Software-defined vehicle” is a term that describes a vehicle whose features and functions are primarily enabled through software, a result of the ongoing transformation of the automobile from a product that is mainly hardware-based to a software-centric electronic device on wheels.

Premium vehicles today can already have up to 150 million lines of software code, distributed among as many as 100 electronic control units (ECUs) and a growing array of sensors, cameras, radar and light detection and ranging (lidar) devices. Mass-market vehicles are not far behind. Three powerful trends — electrification, automation and connectivity — are reshaping customer expectations and driving manufacturers to increasingly turn to software to address them.

 Demanding New Compute Solutions In the past, vehicle manufacturers differentiated themselves with mechanical features such as horsepower and torque. Today, consumers are increasingly looking for features defined by software, such as driver assistance features, infotainment innovations and intelligent connectivity solutions. As driver-assistance features grow into more automated driving and toward fully autonomous driving, the need for more software also grows. As consumers expect richer content in their infotainment systems, that also increases the amount of digital content the vehicle must manage. And as vehicles become part of the internet of things (IoT), transmitting large amounts of data to and from the cloud, software will be required to process, manage and distribute all of that data.

Benefits of the ‘software-defined vehicle'

Beyond unlocking new safety, comfort and convenience features, the software-defined vehicle has a number of other advantages compared to its hardware-defined predecessor.  

Today, software upgrades to vehicle infotainment, telematics or vehicle diagnostic systems require a trip to the dealership. With a software-defined vehicle, customers will be able to receive over-the-air (OTA) updates that cover security patches, infotainment improvements, plus monitoring and tuning of core functional capabilities of the vehicle, such as powertrain and vehicle dynamics.

ECUs will send and receive vast amounts of data to and from sensors and actuators, giving vehicle manufacturers insight into every aspect of a vehicle, its performance and its place in the connected ecosystem. This gives vehicle manufacturers the opportunity to improve life-cycle management and develop revenue-generating features they can offer to customers — all of which will result in deeper, more connected relationships with customers.

How vehicle manufacturers need to change

A key piece in the evolution of the software-defined vehicle will be the separation of software and hardware development. A good analogy is what happened with cellphones. Originally, the software and hardware in cellphones were tightly coupled, but with the introduction of the smartphone, the phone transformed into a software platform that supports an ecosystem of applications regardless of the underlying hardware. The same is happening with vehicle software, as vehicle manufacturers start to create “walled gardens” of applications they and other approved parties can participate in.

Additionally, the transition to software-defined vehicles means that vehicle manufacturers and their partners will have to make several important shifts:

  • Instead of a development cycle focused on “model years,” agile methodologies will drive continuous software development, and OEMs will be able to deploy software to the vehicle even after it has left the factory. 
  • Computing demands will increase, as vehicles process data from various sensors and interact with a broad ecosystem that includes other vehicles on the road. Vehicle manufacturers will have to develop data-analytics systems capable of handling this vast data flow and processing it in near real time.
  • The industry will rethink its approach to vehicle software and electrical and electronic architecture, moving to a more modular service-oriented architecture (SOA) model, which makes it easier for software components to be reused in a building-block format.
  • Security strategies will become even more critical to avoid, detect and defend against cyberattacks, and those strategies will have to evolve to protect the whole system rather than simply protecting individual components or boxes within it.

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The software-defined vehicle of the future will provide improved safety and security features, increased levels of autonomy, the ability to accept daily updates of both functional and safety-related features, and will have a software platform for connected services, including infotainment. It will also create new business models and revenue streams such as theft-prevention services, emergency assist alerts, and travel guides. In short, the software-defined vehicle will create opportunities for both consumers and OEMs, many of which haven’t even been conceived yet.

Aptiv’s approach to enabling the software-defined vehicle is Smart Vehicle Architecture™