Currently reading: Why you need to understand software-defined vehicles
Invented by Tesla and adopted by China, SDVs are now about to take over Europe

Many new terms have entered the automotive lexicon over the past few years with the rise of electrification, some easier to define and understand than others.

Software-defined vehicles (SDVs) sits towards the jargon end of the scale, yet it’s a term that almost all major car manufacturers are using to describe their cars of the future and their capabilities. 

“In the simplest terms, it's a vehicle that can be updated and refreshed over the course of the lifetime of the actual hardware of the car, which in turn allows the vehicle to grow and adapt to the identity of the driver,” explained Derek de Bono, vice president of SDVs at Valeo, the French tier-one supplier that’s transitioning more from hardware into software-defined vehicles, including major SDV projects with Renault and BMW.

“So what you buy when it rolls off the assembly plants really is the first level. Then year after year, as your life changes or as your budget changes, you can add different subscriptions, features or functions.”

De Bono explained that SDVs aren’t a new concept; that they were invented by Tesla before being adopted by many Chinese car companies; and now we’re about “12-24 months away from having the big wave of SDVs” in Europe.

There are major technical changes that enable SDVs to become a reality, and to understand this is to understand their appeal, significance and relevance.

“When we talk about an architecture [today], we call it a distributed architecture,” says de Bono. “You have a wiring harness and many different ECUs in the vehicle. When you add an option, you add an ECU and add a wiring harness, all connected to each other. In the future, we will go to a centralised architecture. We will have just a big central computer. We [will] add functions to the vehicle by adding software into the central computer.”

Gone, then, will be the days of scores of different ECUs and many kilometres of heavy wiring harnesses linking them. This will save cost and weight and make over-the-air updates far simpler to distribute in a safer and more secure way.

SDVs are a welcome response to the software problems that have plagued many recent cars and vehicle architectures, which in part has been caused by their complexity and their number of separate yet interlinked ECUs.

“Distributed architectures have more and more software and control by more and more separate computer units, so the interaction between them becomes trickier. When you're going through the testing validation process to launch the vehicle, it started getting too complex on the distributed architecture, which was pushing us a bit more towards a centralised one," said de Bono.

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“The problem with a distributed architecture is if something goes wrong, it's a recall. You have to bring the vehicle and you have to reflash at the dealership. In a centralised architecture, you can do fixes over the air and decrease service, maintenance and warranty costs in the future.”

SDVs don't only encapsulate software but hardware too, and this is where the ability for a car to transform during its lifecycle beyond traditional updates and cyclical improvements really comes into play.

“A true SDV is as much about the hardware as it is about software," said de Bono. "If you don't have the hardware in the vehicle, you can't deliver the software. We expect SDVs will actually have more hardware content in the vehicle, more cameras, more sensors, more lidars than current vehicles today. 

“Not all will have a function when the vehicle starts production, and we might have not sold that function to the end user. They have a camera in the car and they don't know why. That's because the car maker is anticipating a function that might come out in three or four years and they will need that sensor in the vehicle to be able to deliver that function.”

This is where the practice goes back to theory, for there are no real successful examples of cars being sold with content in them that a user then retrospectively pays to have activated. Remember the furore about BMW charging to activate heated seats?

De Bono listed more power for electric motors, new lighting systems, active safety functions and particularly more advanced automated driving technology as examples of things that could be subsequently upgraded using software – but Valeo is leaving it to car makers to decide the business case.

“Car makers might not charge 100% of the cost [of the vehicle] initially for all of the hardware they put in, because they're budgeting [that] they will get it back and then some over the course of the vehicle’s life,” he said.

One way this could work in practice, suggested de Bono, is for all cars to share the same high-specification hardware but then use software to allow for different trim levels of functionality.

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He uses lighting technology as an example: “Typically, most car makers have three levels of lighting: entry, mid and high. In a really good application of an SDV, you will do away with the medium and low and the car maker will put the high version of lighting in every vehicle. Then, based on your needs, you can either choose [thus pay for] the low, mid or high level function, but the hardware is in the same in the vehicle.”

Valeo is also looking beyond traditional automotive applications to harness what has become quite extraditionary computing power possessed by cars. 

“Virtual-reality gaming is one area where we can use all the cameras and computing power in the vehicle," said de Bono. "We can make the experience in the car even better, not just for the driver but also for the passengers. The hardware is there and already paid for; it’s just some software you add and can add value to the vehicle.”

Mark Tisshaw

Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.

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