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Evolution of the Vehicle Architecture: What’s Next?

Posted: November 9, 2021

Domain consolidation has long been a concept just around the corner for the mobility industry. But we’re only now reaching a turning point that requires new thinking about what the E/E architecture of a vehicle should look like for the future. At the recent 2021 WCX Digital Summit, the Evolution of the Vehicle Architecture roundtable discussion explored the speed and scope at which these changes will happen. Here are some of the key takeaways.


1. Traditional vehicle architecture is no longer sustainable.

Panel moderator Glen De Vos, Senior VP and Chief Technology Officer at Aptiv, explained the challenges today’s fragmented vehicle architecture pose amidst rapidly advancing vehicle technologies and consumer demands: “When we think historically about vehicle architecture, I add a function to the car and I add a piece of hardware to the car, and then I have to connect them all up.” He added: “Over time, that fragmented, distributed approach has resulted in vehicles with up to and over a hundred different controllers, hundreds of millions of lines of code, all developed independently … practically thousands of functions that have massive interdependencies. When you think about that approach, and then today’s environment where we have a significant amount of software-enabled functionality coming into the vehicle, it simply doesn’t have the capability to manage it. It creates massive problems from the standpoint of developmental complexity involving understanding the software, getting it to work effectively together, along with then validating that code. It creates massive complexity for the industry in terms of building the vehicles and the manufacturing aspects of that.”

Panelist Doug Thornburg, former Manager of Research and Advanced Electrical Architecture at Ford Motor Company, weighed in: “The type of features we’re trying to develop are becoming more complex. The functionality that customers expect is more sophisticated and more nuanced, so that in turn drives more and more interfaces that have to be managed in order to deliver the features. And from our customers’ perspective, they expect these features to be coming much more quickly.”


2. Harnessing the power of the software-defined vehicle will require a new approach.

De Vos described current product life cycle management as a static “sell it and forget it” model. Moving forward, he said, will require abstraction of software from hardware — separating the software from the underlying hardware so that it can be managed as a platform over time. “Along with that, to make compute and to make the actual electrical architecture manageable, is a separation of IO from compute,” De Vos explained. “This then ultimately enables us to serverize that compute, bringing together the disparate domains into more centralized, high-performance compute that allows you to get economies. That allows you to support the massive processing required as well as the software functionality. And that really unlocks that software-defined vehicle.”


3. Software-defined architecture will change the way we look at the vehicle lifespan.

Panelist Markus Lipinsky, Managing Director at Aptiv, talked about how the “unfinished product” concept pioneered by Tesla is one of the major drivers of disruptive change in the industry right now. “They came up with this concept of the software update that continuously improves the product, and that concept has numerous advantages,” he said. “I can keep the vehicle fresh much longer. I can also keep my vehicle secure much longer, and as a result, I have a much higher residual value of my vehicle.”

Lipinsky explained that implementing the unfinished product model presents obstacles for incumbent OEMs, “because suddenly you need to keep the whole engineering workforce — so 3,000 to 4,000 engineers over the lifecycle of the entire vehicle. We need much more advanced architectures to accomplish such a great concept.”


4. As we forge ahead, there are valuable lessons to be learned from other industries.

JF Bastien, a software architect at Woven Planet Holdings, talked about the need to be able to manage large-scale software failures as vehicle architecture evolves. He pointed to IT companies that have mastered this capability over the years: “I think there’s experience there that we can transfer to the vehicle industry that’s really interesting, involving these long-tail sets of failures.”

De Vos concurred: “We can learn lessons from other verticals from IT, from other industries that have gone through similar transformations … that have gone to more abstraction of software from the underlying hardware, the containerization and the ability to have APIs that allow you to do feature development on top of base software in a decoupled manner, really opening up the developer community. I think it’s important for us to look across the industry to where we can learn from what others have already done successfully.”

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