Software-Defined Vehicles: defining the industry’s latest buzzword

The SDV – or Software-Defined Vehicle – is the latest buzzword that has found its way into seemingly every automotive and mobility industry conversation. Despite all the talk around this topic, automakers and drivers alike are still figuring out exactly what these SDVs should look like – and how to make “smartphones on wheels” a reality.

In this blog post, we will define the Software-Defined Vehicle, explain why the industry is heading in this direction and outline the challenges and solutions involved in achieving this transformation.

What makes a vehicle “software-defined?”

Similar to the evolution of the smartphone, smart doorbell and other connected technologies, software is becoming more important to the way vehicles are designed. Where a vehicle’s features were previously enabled by hardware and components, features in the next generation of SDVs – from infotainment to EV charging systems – will be governed by software.

Indeed, software is already prevalent within today’s vehicles, but not every vehicle with software is “software-defined.” The difference between these two things, as Popular Science put it, is that one is enhanced by technology, and the other is run by technology. In an SDV, a vehicle’s features and capabilities are enabled entirely or primarily through a central computer system.

New vehicles today have around 100 electronic control units (ECUs), each managing a specific feature. One of the defining features of a true SDV will be bringing all of a vehicle’s features under just a few central ECUs, introducing new and extensible opportunities for both drivers and automakers.

Benefits behind the buzz

This centralized control unit structure is an essential aspect of creating the SDV, enhancing a vehicle’s connectivity, personalization, updatability and safety. One of the major ways this is enabled is through over-the-air (OTA) updates. For fixes that would have traditionally required drivers to visit the dealership for an update or replacement, OTA updates allow for vehicle software to be updated on the go without replacing hardware, similar to a smartphone.

This is not only a convenience for drivers, but a game-changer for automakers as it relates to vehicle recalls. As new capabilities are introduced – such as automated driving features – automakers will inevitably experience bumps along the road. In a truly software-defined vehicle, OTAs allow for these new technologies to be continuously updated and improved during the lifespan of the vehicle, reducing recall and warranty costs for automakers. Similarly, personalized features and services can be continuously rolled out through OTAs, allowing the vehicle and the driving experience to evolve over time.

OTAs and SDVs mark a significant departure from previous models of vehicle design and development, as they extend the lifecycle of vehicles and their components. Hardware-centric vehicles are designed to perform the same functions throughout their entire lifetime. When new technology emerges, customers must purchase an entirely new vehicle for an upgrade. Through OTAs, SDVs can be upgraded long after production, allowing them to keep up with fast-paced technological innovations.

Obstacles along the road to SDVs

While SDVs bring a number of benefits to both customers and automakers, there’s a reason they aren’t widely available today: it’s a challenging transition for the industry to undertake. The development of SDVs requires automakers to think like software engineers, placing them in unfamiliar territory.

In order to create a true SDV, automakers need to modernize software development and deployment processes. Already, customers are experiencing issues with their vehicles’ software-centric components, such as rearview cameras, which were included in recalls affecting more than 1.3 million vehicles in 2023. Typically, these types of issues are due to either missing requirements, unrealistic deadlines or poor integration between the OEM and the supplier.

This type of integration challenge can be attributed in part to previous models of vehicle design, in which the 100 or more ECUs were each programmed during developmental stages to perform their specific function and work in tandem with other ECUs. They were not intended to be updated or modified over the course of the vehicle’s lifetime, as updating just one of these ECUs can cause a domino effect of malfunction across other units.

As software becomes more central to vehicle performance, the need for rigorous quality assurance processes and integration becomes greater. Automakers must invest in comprehensive software testing and validation, integrating these practices throughout the development cycle and across various components. Furthermore, OEMs must strengthen integration with their suppliers. Fostering better collaboration with software suppliers can lead to more seamless and efficient development processes, ensuring that software components from different sources work harmoniously together.

Modernizing software development and deployment practices can help pave the way for SDVs and advance automakers’ ability to swiftly deploy OTA updates in response to software issues, significantly reducing reaction times and costs.

There is significant work to do to achieve these results, but by addressing these areas of concern, automakers can begin to shape the future of mobility with SDVs.

To learn how Envorso’s experts can help you modernize software development and smooth the bumps along the way to SDVs, contact us or sign up for our newsletter.

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