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Industry Trends

What is a Software-Defined Vehicle?

Sep 16, 2023

These days, everyone across the automotive industry is talking about software-defined vehicles (SDVs). This critical evolution in vehicles will bring incredible benefits and opportunities to both car manufacturers and consumers alike. To fully grasp this trend, however, requires a common framework and understanding of what makes a vehicle a software-defined vehicle.

In this blog, I shed some light on what I believe are the four critical aspects needed to build an SDV.

Flexible and Upgradable

A critical aspect of SDVs is their ability to be flexible and deliver a range of capabilities. Historically, vehicles were designed to have specific functions and capabilities when they rolled off the assembly line, and that was all they could do for their entire life. Contrast that with consumers’ expectations of upgradable software in their other personal devices: Could you imagine if your smartphone were fixed and could not be updated with new capabilities? I believe consumers are tired of the fixed experience vehicles have historically provided and prefer models and brands that offer after-sale upgrades. SDVs give us the ability to add new, rich capabilities and services after production that were not anticipated in advance.

One critical aspect to enable this flexibility is networking: Legacy vehicles were implemented with hard-wired connections over networking standards like CAN (Controller Area Network), which fixed specific data sources to destinations as contemplated at design time. To realize the full potential of SDVs, vehicles need to adopt dynamic modern networking technologies that unlock the ability to be flexible and evolve their capabilities over time. New networking standards like Automotive Ethernet allow vehicles to have flexible capabilities, especially around the important sources of data coming to and from the vehicle. SDVs can borrow from modern data center technologies, while adding in additional requirements to ensure safety-critical traffic is prioritized and resiliency is built in. Sonatus provides fundamental technologies to enable modern networking in our multifaceted Sonatus Foundation product.

Consolidated hardware and software coexistence

A second critical shift in SDVs is evolving the vehicle architecture with hardware compute capabilities that enable the kind of upgradability described earlier. Classically, vehicle electronics were implemented with many individual Electronic Control Units (ECUs), which are hardware boxes and their associated software that carry out a single function such as managing the windows, climate control, or braking. That box – often literally and figuratively a “black box” – did not change over its lifetime and only carried out that single function. Not only is that approach expensive, heavy, and difficult to manage, but it is also a barrier to upgradability.

Instead, SDVs adopt fewer, more consolidated, computing hardware units that run multiple tasks, not unlike how your computer or smartphone are running more than one application at the same time. Through techniques like modern operating systems, virtualization, hypervisors, and application containers, these applications can share the hardware resource, run side by side, and not interfere with each other. This evolution significantly simplifies vehicle design, reduces weight and assembly complexity, and fundamentally unlocks the ability to add new capabilities over time.

Data driven

A key hallmark of the modern world is the quantity of data that surrounds us. The myriad sensors in modern vehicles produce a massive amount of data. According to McKinsey, a car can produce around 25 gigabytes of data per hour. In addition, modern drivers expect a range of data coming to them from outside the car, whether that is streaming audio, navigation, real time traffic, and – in the future – even communication from other nearby vehicles or infrastructure.

The challenge for both of these types of data is managing their sheer volume. Without careful management, the amount of data vehicles produce and consume can be overwhelming, dwarfing the ability to send it over LTE networks and store it. Moreover, not all vehicle data is equally useful, because in many cases, things are operating normally and it’s not useful to repeatedly report “All systems OK in system #723” every 50 milliseconds. Far more useful is to detect patterns of problems or interesting events that warrant detailed reporting to enable proactive action, preventative maintenance, and so on. This will demand solutions that can ask more targeted questions about vehicle data and evolve and refine those inquiries rapidly.  This ability to make finer-grained inquiry about vehicle data is one of the unique benefits of Sonatus Collector.


With all this discussion of data, the fourth key characteristic of SDVs is that they are connected. Today, vehicles are increasingly connected to provide specific services like like in-vehicle WiFi, streaming services, or real-time traffic information. That is a good start, but for the full promise of SDVs, we need to leverage the vast power of cloud computing more fully.

The cloud offers a natural place to capture the valuable vehicle data mentioned above, as well as bringing rich computational capabilities, including artificial intelligence, to detect important patterns that could indicate underlying problems. The cloud also offers a rich platform to deliver entertainment and content services to users, a trend that will only increase in importance as higher levels of driving autonomy allow drivers and passengers to enjoy richer news, information, and entertainment services. Sonatus is collaborating with leading cloud providers such as AWS, Google Cloud, as well as OEMs’ private clouds to enable many of these improvements.

SDVs offer the promise of compelling new use cases and experiences, but to achieve these benefits they need to make these four fundamental shifts: flexibility and upgradability, consolidation of hardware, a strong focus on data, and connectivity to the cloud. With these four critical characteristics, SDVs unlock massive potential for new experiences and new value-adding capabilities that may often also be revenue generating. These next-generation vehicles promise an exciting future ahead for OEMs and consumers alike.

If you’re interested to learn more about this topic, Sonatus has a video and audio podcast called “The Garage” where we discuss wide ranging topics about advanced vehicle technology. In our inaugural episode “What is a Software Defined Vehicle?”, Sonatus CEO Jeff Chou and I talk more about SDVs and these key characteristics they share. You can find the podcast on YouTube or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or subscribe to Sonatus’ YouTube Channel to be sure you are notified of future episodes.

Dr. John Heinlein
Chief Marketing Officer

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