Scale: the key to automobile tech innovation

As ACCESS is so involved in providing technology and content for in-car entertainment, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about innovation in the automobile industry. I’ve realised that scale is key, and as software adds so much innovation to next generation cars, scale is even more important. As the number of lines of code in a car continues to rise, it’s critical that the OEMs can re-use code between models, lines and even companies. As the OEM groups grow through consolidation (e.g. Stellantis, the product of the merger between Fiat Chrysler and PSA), there is greater opportunity to amortise car software development and licensing costs over a greater number of vehicles.

Another important way in which innovation has developed is through advances developed in the competitive environment of motor sport trickling down to production cars. Here, scale is not all about the number of cars, but the size of R&D budgets. F1 alone has seen the following technologies either developed or perfected; Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS), Exhaust Heat Recovery Systems, Traction Control, Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS), tyre compounds and tread designs, ‘flappy paddle’ semi-automatic transmissions. This explains why F1 is often referred to as the ‘fastest R&D lab on earth’. In fact, in a bid to make F1 more relevant, recent rule changes on engine size, fuel efficiency and hybrid-engines means that it’s likely that this effect will become even more important over the next decade or so. It will be fascinating to see how quickly innovation delivered through software in motor sport becomes a part of road car innovation. I’d love to know if there is any F1 code in production cars on the road today.

What does this all mean for the car industry? The large car groups that develop a re-useable platform that can used across all marques, brands and models will be at a huge financial advantage. Almost as important is to change mindset so that s/w is the first avenue to explore when looking to innovate rather than being ‘hardware-first’. For the new EV entrants, they not only have to build cars that compete with the traditional OEMs in terms of build quality and performance, but if they are to survive and thrive they also have to build a software platform that enables them to compete when they launch and in the future. However, all these new entrants have a strong motivation to compete on all tech fronts and are not encumbered by legacy thinking or development processes.

Whether you are a new EV manufacturer or have been making cars for decades, developing a re-useable car s/w platform that delivers great functionality, is re-useable, can be continually enhanced as well as being up-dated and monitored over the air, is going to be a key enabler as the OEMs strive to reach the chequered flag of consumer sales.

Why a hybrid approach is vital to future-proofing your in-car entertainment system

The pace of change in software development is incredibly fast, and it’s becoming increasingly complex. As cars become more software-focused, the need to update car software regularly will increase. It will become as natural as updating software on a smartphone. This need will be even more acute in in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) and in-car entertainment, which are growing in influence on purchasing decisions. In this blog, I’ll outline what this means in practice.

Evolution of in-car entertainment

The evolution of in-car entertainment is progressing rapidly, which is a new experience for automotive OEMs and Tier 1s. For decades, a fixed FM radio device was the only form of entertainment they needed to install. Then cassette players came to the fore, and they lasted a decade or so before CD players, then DAB radio became commonplace. All these examples required installation of the relevant piece hardware when the car was manufactured, but after that, OEMs and Tier 1s didn’t need to do anything – there were no updates required once the car left the production line.

But now we’re in a connected world which brings great opportunities for services, but also some threats that were not a concern before. The priority is streaming audio, with video waiting in the wings to take centre stage when every car comes with one or more multi-use screens.

The car lifecycle clashes with connected services

Meanwhile, operating systems have been through their own evolution and at a much faster pace than in-car entertainment. From Windows CE and QNX, to Linux and now Android (with fragmented variants based on AOSP, the open-source variant that OEMs can take, adapt and modify as they need). Streaming is becoming a key buying criterion for cars, with 63% of drivers rating in-car entertainment as one of the car’s most important features, according to The PwC Digital Auto Report in 2020. For OEMs and Tier 1s to meet this demand, automotive and software development timelines need to come together.

But car development is very slow, especially when compared to software and streaming services. For example, take the projected lifecycle of an electric vehicle (EV). Batteries are expected to last around 7 years once the car hits the road. However, the development phase of the vehicle typically takes 2-3 years before that. So, OEMs are preparing cars today that will be on the road in 10 years’ time. This is a long time in the world of connected services, and the software and content landscape could look completely different by then.

To put this in perspective, 10 years ago, you probably hadn’t heard of Spotify – and Android was at version 3 – or Honeycomb – with API level 9. September 2020 saw the release of Android 11with API level 30! 10 years from now, Spotify may not be the dominant audio streaming service it is today. OEMs need to plan for this type of scenario now and ensure they can support the next great content app that comes along.

Hedging your bets with a hybrid approach

A hybrid approach is the most sensible route to take as cars enter the connected world. There are simply too many unknowns for OEMs to place their eggs in one basket now. We don’t know what the future of in-car screens and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) use will be like. Today, broadcast content (including data) from DAB radio, and even FM radio depending on coverage, is still the main consumed content in-car. Mobile coverage varies drastically, so OEMs must be able to smoothly switch from one to another when needed. And mirroring from mobile devices must be supported as car users transition to connected cars via their smartphones and then embedded apps. Car users are moving to connected services at different paces, so OEMs must support them wherever they are on their journey.

Security is another crucial factor for OEMs to consider, especially as the car is now connected to the outside world. If mobile and connected TV worlds are anything to go by, then regular software updates will be become the norm – and possibly even more frequent due to the additional personal safety concerns within a vehicle. OEMs must have the flexibility to support regular updates, whatever the circumstances.

Leave content to the experts

It doesn’t make sense for OEMs to take on the mantle of managing relationships with rights-holders and navigating multiple complex rights deals themselves when it comes to content services. Instead, they should really use an aggregator to do it for them. There are several reasons for this, not least that rights deals are short-term affairs compared to the lifespan of a car. Also, content delivery is incredibly complicated, with new frontiers for OEMs like content protection (digital rights management, or DRM). Put simply, OEMs will find it far easier and quicker to get to market if they lean on experts for support – in the same way that OEMs have relied on their tier 1 partners to deliver functional components for their vehicles rather than sourcing themselves. User data and customer insight will become much more important – as OEMs have a longer relationship with cars, they should want to have control of this rather than ceding to a third-party platform that may have another agenda.

Another big factor to consider is the screen resolution and aspect ratio, and cars are some way off reaching a standardised approach like TV (and it’s highly unlikely they will). Here’s a breakdown of the main issues that OEMs face:

  • The nuances of cars will complicate app support: Different screen sizes and aspect ratios are all the rage in automotive but are unsuitable for supporting video streaming (some wide screens are more akin to a digital billboard beside a sports match than a TV).
  • Keeping up with software devices across multiple devices is tough: Even in the world of TV, with standardisation on 16:9 aspect ratios, premium content providers have their work cut out.
  • App developers will not be keen on supporting multiple screen sizes and ratios: Picture the scene – a testing room full of VW head units, then another for Mercedes, another for BMW etc.
  • Video streaming experience innovations are evolving all the time: There are ample opportunities to keep viewers engaged, e.g., adding more sports stats alongside the main broadcast or allowing voting on talent shows. Of course, when such functionality hits our TV screens, there will be a demand to carry it through to the car. But this will only be possible if app developers are willing and able to do it (i.e., they need the process of updating apps to be as straightforward as possible).

As OEMs prepare for the era of the connected car to kick into gear, it’s important to remember how quickly software – and essential components like operating systems and browsers – and content services evolve in the modern world. Compared to the pace of car rollouts, it will be like stepping onto a Maglev after a light stroll. Those that are best placed to succeed are taking a hybrid approach, and many new revenue opportunities will come their way through the agile ability to quickly support new and existing connected services as a result.

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