Software-Defined Vehicles: The New Norm Re-defining The Future of Owning Cars


Customer expectations are being reshaped by three powerful trends led by the automotive industry transformation – electrification, automation, and connectivity. This is driving more and more manufacturers to turn towards software-defined features such as driver assistance, infotainment innovations, and intelligent connectivity solutions. Age-old differentiating mechanical features such as horsepower and torque, while still important, are slowly losing their charm compared to the above-mentioned software-defined features.

The future of the automotive industry points towards software-defined vehicles. An SDV or a software-defined vehicle is an automobile 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 an electronic device on wheels.

The Evolution of Software Defined Vehicles

Traditionally, the software in the vehicle has been very closely tied to the hardware module or electronic control unit, or ECU, that’s doing a very specific function in the car. The software typically does not evolve much through the vehicle’s lifetime, and any necessary updates involve a trip to the dealership.  However, for the software-defined vehicle, the functions in the car are defined by software rather than specific hardware modules, rather like the applications that we run on our smartphones or computers. These functions can evolve and improve through the vehicle’s lifetime, possibly adding new functions through software. 

We are at the beginning of software-defined vehicles, as we are starting to see some software-defined functions coming into the comfort functions of our vehicles, like the infotainment or navigation systems. There’s now a shift to having different domains in a vehicle and having their capabilities defined by software.

As automatic driving assistance becomes more autonomous, more software increases. So do the expectations from consumers when it comes to what kind of content should be displayed on a vehicle’s infotainment system. The more data transmitted to and from vehicles (with IoT at play), the more work is required from the said systems to process, manage, and distribute the data. 

Myriad Benefits of Software-Defined Vehicles (SDV)

Beyond unlocking new safety, comfort, and convenience features such as additional infotainment options, traffic awareness services, and even home automation, the software-defined car have several other distinct advantages compared to its hardware-defined predecessor.

Today, vehicle software updates are performed by visiting your car dealership. But with a software-defined vehicle, customers will be able to download OTA updates that update your car’s software remotely and provide security patches, infotainment improvements, and monitoring and tuning functions for the engine or powertrain.

ECUs will send vast amounts of data to and from sensors and actuators, giving vehicle manufacturers insight into every aspect of a vehicle. This allows them to monitor its performance while also understanding its role within the connected ecosystem to eventually develop revenue-generating features they can offer to their customers, leading to deeper, more connected relationships with them.

Implementing SDV Functionality

Implementing various software functions can be tricky, but today’s hardware and software methodologies exist to deploy software-defined functions. For example, for all the applications we run in the cloud, the same server can run many different applications simultaneously.

It gets tricky, though, because the car is not the cloud and has safety and real-time response requirements that the cloud typically doesn’t worry about. So, an automotive cloud-native solution in a development environment is a good starting point for developing and deploying software functions, but it needs to understand the environment and the requirements that the vehicle functions have. This is why transformation in the automotive industry is coming together with some new initiatives to make this possible across the automotive value chain.

Future Possibilities of Car Technology with SDVs

As the common vehicle architecture is set to evolve, so will the software-defined technology. This points towards a shift from application-specific domains to more of a zonal architecture where each vehicle area will have a zonal controller that will communicate to the central computer that will run these software-defined functions.

We’ll see much more frequent updates and upgrades to the software functions. And these will be done over the air and not require regular visits to the dealer. And then, these upgrades will introduce more intelligence to the vehicle, better safety through increased ADAS and autonomous functions, and better efficiency through engine management upgrades and the next wave of EV management.

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