skip to Main Content
Industry Trends

Automakers can capitalize on the rise of software with these six shifts

May 22, 2024

(This article was originally published on

Deloitte calls software-defined vehicles “a forthcoming industrial evolution”, as the automotive industry shifts from traditional cars to intelligent, continuously upgradeable vehicles. Innovation is happening – and quickly – but challenges continue to present themselves: management of the supply chain, identifying and hiring the right talent, and the difficulties of porting traditional software development processes to automotive.

In my role, I’m privileged to have conversations with industry experts of all types to learn about their perspectives on advanced automotive technologies. From big tech powerhouses like AWS and Arm, to leading industry analysts like SBD Automotive and Wards Intelligence, to experts within Sonatus, I’ve drawn together six core insights and takeaways about Software Defined Vehicles (SDVs) from these leaders that can benefit automotive innovators as they look to bring advanced software into their vehicles.

1. Consolidating compute is a must

The vast majority of cars shipped today use a distributed design in which individual Electronic Control Units (ECUs) are deployed around the vehicle, each to achieve a single, specific function such as managing the windshield wipers or controlling antilock brakes. This is often referred to as “hardware-defined” because a specific hardware block is assigned for a specific function. Modern vehicles contain as many as 150 or more of these ECUs, which are often designed by Tier-1s, direct suppliers for OEMs, who ship a black box (often literally) with deeply embedded software that carries out this single function for its lifetime. The cost and complexity of having so many single-function ECUs is unsustainable and the isolation of software in each impedes the ability to have flexible, upgradable vehicles. Instead, future SDVs will use a number of consolidated programmable units that can manage multiple functions in the same unit, not unlike how a modern computer runs multiple applications at a time. This important change empowers vehicles to draw upon modern software development practices, saving cost, complexity, and enabling flexibility.

2. Flexibility is critical

In my conversations with industry experts across every discipline, one lesson is clear: we need to anticipate the future. The first inclination when talking about the shift to SDVs is around using software to solve the needs we know about today, such as navigation or driver assistance. While that is needed, it’s crucial that designers also anticipate use cases we can’t contemplate today. A hallmark of the existing hardware-defined vehicle is a tight linkage with software and hardware that inevitably reduces flexibility. As we shift to a software-defined world, we need to ensure that we build in the flexibility needed to evolve over time and solve the challenges we don’t even know about yet quickly and cost-effectively.

3. Vehicles need modern networks

The future of software-defined vehicles is closely linked with the intelligent use and handling of data — from normal vehicle operational signals to video streams, ADAS sensors like Radar and LiDAR, and new sources of data such as EV batteries and smart tires. All of these sources will open new opportunities for innovation, but only if vehicle networks adapt to enable dynamically configurable application of data and intercommunication between vehicle systems. The current standard Controller Area Network (CAN) is a fixed design in which data sources and destinations are hard coded and lack the capability and flexibility to be adapted to new needs at scale. CAN and similar standards will be with us for a while, but the growing shift to integrate new standards like Automotive Ethernet that support dynamic, modern networking will enable a shift to more powerful uses of vehicle data.

4. Collaboration = automotive innovation

In the past, technology companies were often fully vertically integrated from software all the way to, in some cases, their own chip fabrication. The current trend in the technology industry is breaking apart this vertical integration to the benefit of everyone involved. This shift has been enabled in part by the intelligent reuse of standards that allows companies to benefit from innovation without doing everything in-house. Automotive can benefit from this same shift as well, though the market is far earlier on its journey. OEMs, which historically relegated software to their Tier-1 suppliers, are wisely demanding visibility or outright control of the software and standards to ensure reuse. But OEMs don’t have to do everything themselves: standards enable division of labor with Tier-1 and Tier-2 suppliers while retaining the visibility into software and reuse that OEMs are sensibly demanding.

5. Cloud-connected vehicles are the future

The cloud is opening up countless benefits for vehicles, spanning from design and prototyping, vehicle usage monitoring, advanced diagnostics, AI for ADAS and autonomous driving, and downstream value-added services. Connecting vehicles to the cloud is no longer enough. To add real value, cloud connectivity must be coupled with smart systems for managing vehicle data, as well as the ability to enable portability of compute between the vehicle and the cloud. The most advanced OEMs are beginning to leverage the cloud but there is still so much untapped potential. Many of the future use cases and innovations will be integrally linked to cloud connectivity throughout the vehicle lifecycle.

6. SDVs will enable, not impede, differentiation

We frequently hear concerns from OEMs that SDVs and the reuse of standardized technologies in SDV foundational layers will hamper their ability to differentiate. My belief, which is bolstered by what I’m hearing from industry experts is clearly the opposite: a powerful SDV foundation in the vehicle, paired with cloud-based extensible technologies, is a key enabler for OEMs to deliver differentiated services, much like how the richly upgradable smartphone enables powerful and valuable user experiences. In fact, in a landscape where OEMs are focusing on achieving customer loyalty, improving cost efficiency, and remaining competitive in a rapidly evolving landscape, smart deployment of SDV technologies will be invaluable to help achieve those objectives, not weaken them.

Vehicle design is experiencing revolutionary changes. Coupled with the rapid shift to electrification, the combination provides an opportunity to achieve vehicles that are smarter, more capable, and more compelling. It’s exciting to be a part of this transformation and I am hopeful that OEMs will embrace the massive opportunity in front of them and capitalize on the potential of the once-in-a-generation transition underway.

Learn how Sonatus is enabling automotive OEMs and suppliers to accelerate the transition to flexible and dynamic SDVs with a suite of in-vehicle and cloud software products and solutions.

Back To Top