On-board storage requirements are driven by the continuously changing infotainment systems and other vehicle advancements such as ADAS and autonomous cars.

Some car buyers consider technological packages in automobiles as greater buying motivators than the engine and other mechanical components.

In the last 20 years or so, we have seen a transition from cars with minimal electronic content, to electric and hybrid drivetrains with dozens of independent computers controlling everything from the door locks to the battery, and from climate control to engine, suspension, and control systems used for reliability and safety.

The high volume of data generated from these systems is placing greater focus on storage strategies.

Of particular importance is local on-board storage in the vehicle. The need for high capacity storage optimised for the rigorous demands of the automotive environment promises to only accelerate, as the breadth and complexity of the software-driven features in cars evolve. Such a trend will become even more pronounced, as more cars are connected to the Internet, and in particular, we move closer to transitioning to semi-autonomous and autonomous drive.

Soon, more advanced autonomous vehicles may have on-board local storage capacity needs of one terabyte or higher.

To date, infotainment and navigation have been major drivers of the need for high-performance automobile computing systems and in-vehicle storage.

In recent years, the evolution of these systems drove several shifts in storage demands, first from optical drives (mostly for map data) to flash memory card-based storage systems, then to higher capacities of flash storage in the form embedded flash drives (EFDs) inside of these systems for bigger data collections and higher-definition content.

As the advancement of these systems continue, it raises the question of what will happen to local storage requirements as these systems connect to smartphones and the cloud.

Gap in development cycles

Consumers are used to smartphone and tablet experiences where the hardware is replaced every couple of years and software apps can be updated on a weekly basis. Automakers have struggled to keep up with these trends. The development cycle for an automotive infotainment system can be upwards of three years, so when the technology is introduced, it can actually already be a generation out-of-date compared to the consumer electronics market. While the production version of the infotainment system is typically expected to last the model life of the car, which can be five years or more, it may, in fact, become quickly obsolete.

On the rise are integration technologies that connect drivers’ phones with the car’s infotainment system to run a subset of third-party applications using the screen and interface buttons.

However, using a smartphone and a small screen a few inches from your eyes is very different than using an application while you are driving a car. There is still a huge role for the automakers’ infotainment systems to deliver an experience optimised for the in-car environment. Part of future-proofing the infotainment system in an automobile includes ensuring adequate storage capacity to download and manage new applications, as well as to ensure that the hardware is designed for the 10 to 15-year life, rather than the typical few-years of life that is common with consumer electronics products.

Edge vs. cloud

The cloud has become integral to mobile device computing and shows promise for in-car connected systems as well. That begs to ask the question: “If everything can be stored and run from the cloud, why do users need to store it locally?”

The cloud plays a role in managing and updating devices, as well as backing-up and collecting data. However, we have all experienced latency issues when moving data from the cloud (such as watching movies at peak times, data limitations on carriers data plans or even a lack of connectivity), which remind us that a connected car is not truly connected all of the time, nor is it optimally connected when it is connected.

Other industries, such as cable TV, have gone through a detailed analysis of cloud versus gateway versus edge storage—to optimise cost, performance and reliability—and, as the automotive makers and service providers move to the connected world, similar analysis and trade-offs will need to be made.

In general, increasing the amount of storage at the edge, and making local decisions on what data is needed to be transmitted to the cloud, can lead to a more responsive and optimised solution.

Advanced connected cars can collect nearly a gigabyte of data per second. In fact, Gartner estimates that by 2020 connected and autonomous car data traffic per vehicle may reach over 280 petabytes, or 280 million gigabytes, annually. It is unrealistic to expect that this much data can be effectively and efficiently transmitted back to cloud servers. An edge flash memory-based solution optimised for recording could solve many of these problems.

Stringent automotive environment

The automotive environment creates very unique challenges. For example, the temperature range in which a device is expected to work is very different from an air-conditioned server room and, as processing power at the edge increases, heat from other components in the box are also driving requirements for more extreme operating temperatures. Data retention in flash memory storage is impacted by temperature, so special design approaches are needed to ensure that these devices can endure the next generation of automotive applications.

Automotive compute and storage systems also need to boot at very low temperatures, which also poses unique design challenges—not just in the memory itself, but in the controllers that manage the raw flash memory.

Additionally, the reliability requirements in the automotive world are substantially higher, and as storage migrates from infotainment to systems where lives are potentially at risk (such as auto-pilot functionality), those requirements become even more stringent. These demanding environments also dictate a very different approach to the memory device, starting with the design process and architecture itself. Merely adding quality through a screening process is not adequate for these applications.

The connected car will advance the state of our lives in the same way connected consumer devices (like smartphones) have done in recent years. As the electronics content in automobiles increases, storage leaders and local (or edge) storage optimised for this the rapidly evolving industry will play an increasingly important role in bringing to life the vision of the connected car.

Martin Booth is Director of Marketing for Automotive Products in the Embedded and Integrated Solutions Group at Western Digital. Prior to joining the company, he held both engineering and marketing positions in the tablet computing, PC, software and high-performance computing industries.