As cars transform into computers, traditional carmakers need to innovate Silicon Valley-style
In a live address at the Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live event in California this week, Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook made the ears of large car company executives prick up.
“It would seem like there will be massive change in that industry, massive change,” Cook said. “When I look at the automobile, what I see is that software becomes an increasingly important part of the car of the future. You see that autonomous driving becomes much more important.”
What Mr Cook said is hardly news to anyone who has been following the car industry – massive changes are already here.
You may have witnessed the transformation of the car into a more automated version of itself – intelligent parking assistants, in-car wifi hotspots and self-steering capabilities are all commonplace in high-end cars like the BMW 7 Series.
But the very core of the car, under the hood, so to speak, has been profoundly transformed.
You car is no more a mechanical vehicle – it is now a complex mega-computer.
“There are upto 70 small computers in a car, controlling different functions from brakes to acceleration, to the way the engine works, to door locks, infotainment system, instrument clusters, radio – all these systems need a computer to work,” said Mr Luis Gargate, a computational physicist and business development manager at Critical Software, a Portuguese company that develops critical safety systems for automotives, railway and spacecraft.
“When you press the accelerator or brakes on a car, there’s software in the loop that will brake your wheel. If it fails, it can be catastrophic because your car might be unable to stop.”
If you layer on new systems required for self-driving cars – radars, LIDAR, cameras, sensors and memory required to process the data from these sensor – cars are becoming one of the most sophisticated machines to have ever existed.
To put this in context, consider this: Apollo 11, the spaceship that took humans to the moon, had 145,000 lines of computer code. The Large Hadron Collider has 50 million. The Android operating system has 12 million. A modern car has about 100 million lines of code.
Without exception, everyone from traditional carmakers to technology companies like Apple, Google and Uber, and specialist software makers that build the computing brains of cars, all predict that connectivity and automation is the inevitable next step for automobiles.
“The car has evolved so much comfort, that this is what customers now demand,” said Gavin Ward, spokesperson for BMW UK.
Apple has hired several high-profile car experts including Megan McClain, a former Volkswagen engineer with expertise in automated driving, and Vinay Palakkode, a graduate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, a hub of automated driving research.
Meanwhile, Uber has opened a robotics centre in Pittsburgh that poached a number of researchers from the nearby Carnegie Mellon University and is building mapping technology with the University of Arizona, and Google’s self-driving cars had driven over 1 million miles as of June 2015.
Autonomous driving software has existed for many years now outside the car industry – particularly in space satellites and aeroplanes.
A space satellite is almost completely autonomous – it navigates itself in outer space and communicates with Earth independently. Aeroplanes too can land automatically on certain runways in good weather conditions.
The problem with cars is they sit in far more complex environment, with much more chance of human error. “Companies like Tesla and Google can do this to some extent.
They’ve proven the concept of driverless cars, but it is known that these systems are not failsafe yet. You still need a driver to sit there and react if something goes wrong,” Mr Gargate said.
In a sense, cars are much more complex than a typical space satellite. Because of this, cars have begun to borrow technologies originally developed for space exploration.
For instance, Mr Gargate has implemented stress test software that was originally used on European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite, for software that goes to carmakers like Volkswagen, Audi, Daimler, and Mercedes.
The BMW 7 series uses the head-up displays that fighter pilots used as part of the display systems in its machines. “We have a 40GB hard drive in this car just for entertainment system,” Mr Ward of BMW said.
Traditional car companies, including BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Audi and Ford are all investing heavily in the technological evolution of cars.
“Jaguar Land Rover has a software operation in Silicon Valley, they don’t have the expertise in-house and face huge engineering challenges, so they are having to look outside the boundaries for innovation,” said Professor David Bailey, an auto industry expert from Aston University.
Mike Bell, Global Connected Car Director at Jaguar Land Rover concurs.
“The biggest change is that we are taking greater responsibility for the software that operates in key areas – such as connectivity, infotainment and advanced driver-assistance systems – as a core commodity rather than purely sourcing electronic control units (ECUs) as a black box,” he said.
“This has resulted in partnerships with leading industry players such as Intel and MIT AgeLab to help us develop the right platforms on which our software will execute.”
General Motors will test driverless cars in Detroit late next year, and Ford has also opened a research centre in Silicon Valley as part of its push to be viewed as a partner with the sexier technology companies.
Audi showed its R8 e-tron piloted driving technical concept car at CES in Asia in May, which has partial autonomous capabilities. Audi sees its car as a mobile device that lets its users “always remain online” even while on the road.
Its focus is on connectivity: how to program your car to stream Spotify, run Netflix and call emergency services through wifi if you crash.
“Technically [BMW] could release our driverless cars now. We have tested them in Munich where the human engineer is completely passive, like a passenger,” said Mr Ward.
“It’s just a question of customer acceptance and legislation. We’re a global car company, so there are a lot of legal challenges ahead.”
Will the incumbents still exist as cars become the domain of software engineers, rather than mechanical ones, or be completely supplanted by the likes of nimble Tesla and giants like Apple?
BMW’s Mr Ward says bring on the competition. “We see Apple and Google as welcome competition, the motorcar revolution needs new blood, it stimulates the creativity of our engineers,” he said.
Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler reflected this opinion, speaking at Ferrari’s public offering last week.
“Whether it is the Google car [or] the Apple car, this notion we are seeing with autonomous driving and assisted driving is going to change the traditional nature of car making,” he told CNBC.
“This industry in general has to open up to disruptors,” Marchionne said. “I think we have been late to the party.”