Auto Electronics

My Computer Seats Six… And Gets 30 Miles To The Gallon

Mobile software management and mobile-virtualization technology pave the way for manufacturers to move from the connected car to the managed car.

The communications avalanche propelling today’s “connected” lifestyle has piled into the auto industry in a big way. With all of the recent advances in automotive technology, the concept of the car as a four-wheeled computer is finally becoming a reality. Scores more vehicles that are connected to the network via embedded cellular modules and mobile phones hit the road every day.

Auto manufacturers and drivers recognize that connecting vehicles to the network is a logical step forward, and are homing in on the multitude of potential opportunities. For example, at the Fully Networked Car Workshop held during this year’s Geneva International Motor Show, Ford Group Vice President of Global Product Development Derrick Kuzak said the company’s SYNC platform, a fully integrated in-vehicle communications and entertainment system, is already generating additional revenue per vehicle. A similar success story came from Greg Ross, GM’s Vice President of Business Extensions for OnStar, who reported that the company generated $1 billion in revenue from its OnStar system in 2010.

This opportunity, together with electric-vehicle (EV) initiatives, have car manufacturers implementing a new architecture in which powerful, general-purpose embedded computing devices replace dedicated electronic control units (ECUs). These more powerful devices help reduce on-board software, minimize hardware complexity, and reduce costs. Moreover, they enable more sophisticated in-vehicle services and applications that will ultimately turn the car into the “fifth screen” (after movies, TVs, PCs, and mobile devices). By doing so, manufacturers can fulfill the need for communication and information access on the road, and fully integrate the car into consumers’ connected lives.

The automotive industry will likely follow the mobile-phone industry in the sense that, once connected, the car—just like today’s smartphones—will become a platform for new content and services. Thus, two significant trends have emerged within the automotive industry: growth in the number of software-based features in vehicles, and the replacement of ECUs with more powerful, general-purpose, embedded computing devices via technologies such as mobile virtualization and mobile software management.

By applying a mobile software-management-enabled mobile-virtualization solution, automotive manufacturers are free to securely deploy real-time systems and advanced, entertainment-focused, high-level operating systems (HLOSs) on the same on-board computing device that handles traditional systems like climate control. Doing so will increase hardware utilization and streamline costs, giving carmakers a stronger platform to build valuable, ongoing relationships with their customers. And, as the industry is already proving, lucrative new software-driven business models exist for those dedicated to doing it right.

IVI: The Connected Car’s Core

The in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system brings together wireless connectivity, IP-communication infrastructure, middleware, and applications in a powerful, unified computing box. IVI opens up new opportunities for manufacturers to introduce a better user experience and innovative in-vehicle services, as well as address challenges associated with manageability and improve brand differentiation.

From the driver’s perspective, in-vehicle infotainment is the best way to enhance the driving experience while providing a safer driving environment. It does so by centralizing features such as GPS, climate control, and parking sensors with navigation, traffic reports, and online information, including weather, location-based services (LBS), and multimedia.

IVI also offers the opportunity to provide additional services and applications to consumers to fulfill the need for communication and information access on the road. As a result, manufacturers can create an additional source of revenue, while transforming the customer relationship typical of today—one that’s associated with issues such as repairs and, in the worst case, vehicle recalls.

In addition, IVI systems are transforming the traditional competitive parameters of the automobile industry, i.e., costs and vehicle performance. As the fully networked, computerized car increases the need for processing power to handle the various in-vehicle services, the same processing power can be used to manage systems that were once the province of dedicated ECUs (in the short term, the critical safety systems connected to the CAN bus will remain separate from the IVI subsystem).

Hardware utilization will dramatically improve if multiple systems can share computing power in a secure manner, which also reduces costs. Beyond cost reduction, module consolidation results in lower vehicle weight due to simplified wiring, along with corresponding design and manufacturing benefits.

The integration of various software systems onto the same central computing unit creates interesting opportunities to boost the performance of the car. For instance, the driver can obtain information regarding when it’s optimal to refuel, as well as receive real-time feedback about the effects of driving habits by integrating information from the engine control system with location-based services. This will save fuel and, perhaps, even lives.

Non-safety critical systems will be the first to move across in the short term. Eventually, the deeply embedded world and the IVI world will converge.

Lessons From The Mobile-Device Industry

Mobile-device manufacturers and network operators have learned that in a world of broadly available network access and a sea of similarly designed touchscreen devices, what truly differentiates the offering is experience. As a result, during the last decade, the mobile industry has transformed from being a closed, embedded marketplace to one that embraces open platforms and always-on connectivity in today’s powerful smartphones and emerging mobile devices. With the in-vehicle experience heading in the same direction, the automotive industry can learn several important lessons from the mobile-phone market.

The first deals with the shift in requirements as the market evolves from being hardware-driven to software-driven. The embedded radio engineers who were responsible for building the first mobile phones were masters at getting the most out of the hardware available to them. Once sufficient bandwidth, processing power, color screens, and intuitive user interfaces arrived, the focus naturally changed from hardware to software. Companies that didn’t break from the hardware-oriented philosophy saw a decrease in market share.

In a software-focused market, the platform is critical because it allows mobile OEMs to scale and extend offerings over time and across customer segments. Platforms also enable companies to tap into external innovation, and offer new features to customers after completing the initial sale.

Understanding the always-varying connectivity requirements in a highly mobile environment is important. While many initial data applications for the IT market counted on fixed, cheap, and almost unlimited bandwidth, mobile data networks don’t provide such a luxury. Bandwidth is limited, expensive, and intermittent, and data-transfer rates can vary greatly, depending on location. Therefore, it’s crucial for developers of advanced in-vehicle communications technologies to understand how applications use bandwidth in all applicable contexts.

Well-designed, intelligent applications can behave differently depending on the available bandwidth and the location (e.g., to limit roaming costs). For instance, when a car is near a Wi-Fi hotspot such as the home, large amounts of data can be transferred for consumption at times when bandwidth is relatively unlimited and inexpensive. Protocols and applications need to be designed to cope with the loss of connectivity as well.

Software is also, by nature, infinitely more flexible than hardware. Software updating and application management are keys to building an ongoing relationship with the customer throughout the lifetime of a mobile device. This will prove to be true in the automotive market, too.

When the mobile-phone market shifted from hardware- to software-based, a number of leading companies opted to use over-the-air software updating technologies as a competitive differentiator to retain customer loyalty and provide new revenue opportunities. As mobile service providers pushed out new software to consumers, they also recognized the importance of having access to information about software performance and usage.

Thus, today’s generation of sophisticated mobile devices incorporate impressive analytic and diagnostic agents available to collect information about everything from consumer behavior to rogue applications to hardware and network issues. Quick troubleshooting and the ability to identify the problems even before they’re encountered by the customer have been key factors to providing quality mobile service.

Another consideration when weighing open versus closed systems revolves around the issue of security. Security is often used by established engineering organizations as an argument to justify why the embedded approach of closed RTOS-based systems is preferable. When looking at security in isolation, closed systems are safer than open systems. However, once other requirements are added, such as cost and customer needs, the closed approach becomes impractical—and more expensive.

As a starting point, an open platform should be a non-negotiable baseline requirement. The engineering organization should be motivated to design a security system to fit the particular deployment.

Technologies such as mobile virtualization allow for secure partitioning of legacy systems and new open systems. Thanks to application certification and revocation, the manufacturer can plug into an existing developer community without opening the floodgates to malware and rogue applications. In fact, the experience with security in the mobile market can be leveraged and deployed profitably by the automotive industry.

The Connected Car Evolves To The Managed Car

With revolutionary new technology emerging in almost every facet of consumers’ lives, the car being “connected” simply isn’t enough anymore. As more automobiles become connected, the next step for the industry is to focus on how to manage the connected car and its IVI system as a platform for new services. This is embodied in the concept of the “managed car.” Ultimately, the automotive value chain must ensure it has the necessary management capabilities to enable the next generation of in-vehicle services.

Now that it’s essentially a computer on wheels, the car’s connectivity and what is actually connected—firmware, software, and applications – must be managed easily and comprehensively to see a return on investment in the short term, and gain a competitive advantage in the long run. This includes the ability to add, update, and remove software throughout the lifetime of the vehicle, and acquire business intelligence with application analytics on software usage as the mobile-device industry conveniently discovered.

Two key ingredients to a successful software-updating service are reliability and flexibility. These attributes are essential, especially in the automotive industry, because they ensure consumer confidence in receiving software updates, while giving service providers the ability to keep their value propositions current over the vehicle’s lifetime. Over-the-air software updating has proven to be the most reliable, flexible, comprehensive, and cost-effective method for OEMs to manage a vehicle’s software (Fig. 1).

Furthermore, the requirements of an IVI platform are so diverse that no single OS can meet them without compromising on functionality, performance, stability, and/or security. The key for a multiservice software-delivery model is to have a dedicated OS for car-assistance services, another for infotainment, and a third for consumer-downloaded applications (the latter can be unified with the infotainment).

The managed car can be achieved by using a full mobile software-management and mobile-virtualization solution to manage the IVI system (Fig. 2). Such a system includes the following elements integrated in a central, connected computing box:

Real-time mobile virtualization: It’s able to manage multiple virtual machines (VMs) running different software stacks in parallel and utilizing the same hardware. In this scenario, each domain (one instance of VM, HLOS, and applications) can run completely different software stacks in a secure and failsafe manner (failure in one OS will not impact another), from the smallest RTOS to the most feature-rich HLOS. This comprehensive solution addresses the diverse requirements of an IVI system in order to deal with the complex environment of the managed car. Simultaneously, it provides a migration path from existing legacy systems to new media-rich solutions.

For example, the system may be configured so that one domain would run a legacy RTOS controlling the parking sensors, while another runs an entertainment system on a HLOS (e.g., QNX, MeeGo, Android, or Linux). To provide maximum design freedom, each virtual machine can be configured in terms of key performance and usability criteria, such as startup time, access to resources, and priority versus other virtual machines. The parking sensors work in isolation from the HLOS to provide a split-second startup time after the vehicle is turned on and put in reverse. However, the entertainment system can boot powerful graphic capabilities and a full HLOS before services become available to the passengers.

Management virtual machine: This “machine” (red boxes in Figure 2) handles the connection to the back-end software-management center. It can update all of the virtual machines, control the configuration of the software running on all virtual machines, and monitor performance and usage characteristics of the software running on these machines. With this functionality, auto manufacturers are able to build an ongoing relationship with their customers by providing upgrades and new features. Moreover, new business models become possible, since the entire IVI system can be upgraded with new services without requiring the consumer to bring the vehicle to the dealership.

Software-management center: A powerful cloud-hosted back-end system within the software-management-enabled mobile virtualization system includes asoftware-management center that provides a comprehensive interface to all deployed vehicles. From here, a fleet administrator can deploy, configure, upgrade, and manage software based on powerful, real-time reports regarding issues, software inventory, and customer usage. The software-management center uses optimized algorithms and protocols to ensure that bandwidth is used intelligently, costs are controlled, and the consumer has an excellent user experience.

Instant Updates

Intelligent policy management enables auto manufacturers to configure the car to use Wi-Fi at home for heavy data traffic and mobile networks, enabling instant updates such as traffic information or location-based services. Because the service is entirely cloud-hosted, manufacturers can even let vehicle owners configure or manage particular in-vehicle services, or third parties can take responsibility for a particular subsystem such as navigation. These systems are already managing billions of mobile devices around the world in a very challenging software management environment, with very high user satisfaction.


Morten Grauballe, executive vice president of products, holds a B. Sc. and M. Sc. in International Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Yoram Berholtz, director of business development holds a B.Sc.E.E. from the University of Tel-Aviv, Israel, and an MBA from the University of Bradford, United Kingdom. He can be contacted at [email protected].
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