In June of this year, Volvo Cars announced its plans to rethink automobile production based on the idea of a software-defined vehicle platform. The car manufacturer wants to switch to fully electric cars by 2030. Until then, cars should differentiate themselves through their software, believes company boss Håkan Samuelsson. Instead of having large hardware components, more and more functionality is provided by software.
In preparation for this change, the company has expanded its internal software development teams and standardized them to a core suite of software and hardware platforms. For Samuelsson, the traditional approach of specifying components and having a tier 1 supplier deliver a black box of hardware with embedded software is no longer an efficient way to provide new automotive functionality.
Instead, Volvo is developing a central computer platform and software developed in-house. Samuelsson believes this move to a software-defined car will be almost as big a change for the industry as the move to electric vehicles.
During the announcement event, Patrik Bengtsson, Head of Software Platform at Volvo Cars, described how several levels of transformation are driving the digitization of the automotive industry. According to Bengtsson, the changes in autonomous vehicles, electrification and connectivity have one common trailblazer – software.
The amount of software used in automobiles is growing in volume, complexity, and value. For Bengtsson, software will ultimately affect, change, or even disrupt every part of the automotive industry.
Computer Weekly recently spoke to Bengtsson about how Volvo’s digital transformation is translating into automotive production. “We’re traveling,” he says. “If we look at the current architecture of the car, more and more functions are software-controlled. In the past, automakers relied on tier 1 suppliers to deliver these new features as black box software packages. Apart from Tesla, all other automakers do the same. “
Volvo’s goal is to take advantage of all the benefits that software can offer. In a software-defined car, important functions are provided by software. Instead of being recognized for its suspension or engine type, a software-defined car would be categorized based on the functions and features its software offers, says Bengtsson.
Bengtsson, who previously led the development of infotainment and driver interaction software for Volvo, says the company’s experience with this new infotainment system has paved the way into its software-defined future. “In 2017, when we developed the infotainment system, we switched to Android,” he says. This was an important step for Volvo as the car manufacturer had previously obtained its infotainment systems from a tier 1 supplier.
A Volvo car typically uses around 180 computers. Bengtsson says the company is reducing that number by moving the most functional computer modules into core hardware components. First introduced in a new Volvo model to be unveiled in 2022, the core computing system consists of three main computers. These support each other in operation Image processing and artificial intelligence, general computers and infotainment.
An operating system of operating systems
The next generation of all-electric Volvo models, including the company’s first SUV to be built on an entirely new all-electric technology base, will run on Volvo’s proprietary Operating System (OS) called VolvoCars.OS. This will act as a roof system for electric Volvo cars, as Bengtsson explains: “We are building a system and software stack in-house to connect to VolvoCar.OS. The key is to build an API structure that allows our developers to access all of the vehicle sensors. “
The aim is to integrate the company’s various operating systems in the car and in the cloud, thus creating a single software operating system environment. The underlying operating systems include Android Automotive OS, QNX, AutoSar (AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture) and Linux.
Real-time processing is performed on the car’s main computers, but cloud connectivity is also used to provide additional functionality.
Bengtsson says the approach Volvo is taking will allow for faster, more flexible development and more frequent over-the-air updates for customers’ cars. “The company’s goal is to make Volvo cars better every day,” he adds.
Thanks to the use of simulators and Android emulators, as well as the internal continuous integration and provisioning functions, the speed with which new functions can be added to cars is significantly accelerated.
Bengtsson says the hardware used in Volvo vehicles will have room for growth, but it can also be replaced with updated components without affecting the software. This is analogous to the way smartphone users get new features on existing devices through over-the-air operating system updates. But at some point they may want to upgrade to a new device.
From conversations with Bengtsson, an interesting fact about a software defined car is that the base model and the high-end models contain the same basic components. The added value results from the enabling of new software functions.
For example, a customer can purchase the standard infotainment option, but opt for a software update at a later date in order to activate the higher-quality infotainment functions. An over-the-air update could also be introduced to improve the battery life and range of Volvo’s electric cars.