Software-defined vehicles come of age

Article By : Nitin Dahad

Operating systems and over-the-air updateable features are making software-defined vehicles more prominent as automakers strive to improve in-cabin experiences and upgradable features.

In the world of electronics media, we tend to go through phases where every announcement contains a buzzword or phrase of the moment. The current one is software-defined vehicles, and marketing people seem to have gone into overdrive (excuse the pun) in 2023 so far.

Indeed, it’s something we’ve covered for a while. Companies started with creating zonal architectures for automotive systems, and then building up these platforms to enable software-defined services and applications. In recent weeks we saw Mercedes-Benz introduce its new MB.OS operating system. Volkswagen Group’s software company CARIAD also announced its work with Harman to launch an app store first in Audi cars followed by Porsche, Volkswagen and other brands, where customers will get access to content provided by third parties; Volkswagen said that it will integrate its own apps and additional services via the store.

CARIAD app store interface.
CARIAD’s app store interface. (Image: CARIAD)

CARIAD CEO Dirk Hilgenberg commented, “We will take the in-car experience to the next level – by integrating the digital world of the Volkswagen Group’s customers seamlessly into the car. Our group application store already allows a first glimpse on a completely new infotainment stack: The store will be part of the ‘One.Infotainment’ system in the premium software for the next generation of Porsche and Audi models.”

Mercedes-Benz is introducing its MB.OS first on its new E-Class model this year; it said the infotainment is expected to be more immersive, drivers and passengers will have access to more apps that they are used to on their smartphones and desktops, there will be more integration with wearables to monitor driver well-being and safety, and more bio-informatics.

When Tesla introduced its smartphone-style user interface a few years ago, customers, over the course of time, have come to expect similar user interfaces in many of their electronics devices and products, and this includes their cars. The automakers have responded by creating architectures that enable the user interface to be the centerpiece of the car, with the ability to provide software-driven applications and services on a base hardware platform.

Last week, the Qt Group said it had entered into a supplier agreement to deliver its full software portfolio for human-machine interface (HMI) development and deployment across all General Motors (GM) brands and configurations. The company said it will provide its complete portfolio of cross-platform HMI development and tools – from its design studio and framework to its quality assurance tools – to GM to enable the automaker to design and develop once, and test and deploy everywhere across its vehicles. GM will have access to Qt’s fully customizable cross-platform design capabilities, bridge tooling, performance-optimized real-time 2D and 3D graphics, and reusable code.

By selecting Qt, GM is looking to achieve its ambitions to transform the in-vehicle user experience (UX) and as it states in the announcement, ‘connect customers’ digital lives, providing drivers and passengers with an enhanced in-cabin experience that can be conveniently modified and updated while limiting the need to purchase new or additional hardware’. Juha Varelius, CEO at Qt Group, commented, “GM’s plans for its vehicles aim to redefine the future of the automotive industry. Software-defined vehicles will mark a turning point in the experiences that auto manufacturers are able to offer their customers.” GM’s software-defined vehicle strategy includes the launch of its own Ultifi software platform later in 2023, allowing for frequent over-the-air software updates.

Indeed, it is ultimately the in-cabin experience that automakers are looking to improve through these software-defined capabilities. Earlier this year, Harman announced a multi-year, multi-faceted partnership with Ferrari focused on bringing the next generation of in-cabin experiences to market. Ferrari will leverage Harman’s Ready Upgrade hardware and software to deliver fully upgradeable consumer electronics-level experiences into the cabin across their vehicle lineup, quickly and cost effectively. The partnership extends to the racetrack, as Harman Automotive becomes the exclusive in-cabin experience team partner of Scuderia Ferrari beginning with the 2023 Formula 1 season.

The ‘Ready Upgrade’ suite from Harman features three families of production-grade cockpit domain controllers, advanced software, an array of pre-integrated features and a full suite of low-code software development tools that reduce new feature time-to-market and cost for OEMs.

For Ferrari, Ready Upgrade adapts to their vehicle networks and tunes the performance without having to invest in large software development efforts, accelerating the creation of their differentiated and signature in-cabin experience. Armin Prommersberger, senior vice president of product management at Harman International, commented, “The current project-based approach simply takes too long — often three years or more to source, develop and launch a bespoke product that becomes obsolete shortly after launch. Ready Upgrade adopts a product-based approach that transforms the vehicle into a modern electronic device, similar to both smart homes and smart phones in delivering a user experience that is much quicker to market with the capability to remain up-to-date throughout the life of the vehicle.”

The infotainment systems that can be updated or improved over the lifetime of a vehicle include areas like audio too. Swedish audio specialist Dirac announced earlier this year a partnership with BlackBerry QNX to integrate Dirac’s solution into the QNX acoustics management platform to make it easier and more affordable for automakers to digitally upgrade the performance of sound systems in high-end vehicles. The two companies have already begun work on the first implementation in a high-end electric vehicle for a leading (unnamed) European manufacturer.

Dirac’s ‘Opteo Professional’ will be accessible on all QNX supported chipsets through the QNX audio framework, which means automakers don’t need to install audio software in either the head unit SoC or in a separate digital signal processor (DSP) – which the company said can be a time consuming, expensive, and complex process. Dirac’s audio solutions can be standard features available to automakers, or also offered as potential upgrades to consumers at either the time of purchase or at a later date, through an over-the-air (OTA) update based purchase.


This article was originally published on embedded.

Nitin Dahad is the Editor-in-Chief of, and a correspondent for EE Times, and EE Times Europe. Since starting his career in the electronics industry in 1985, he’s had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He’s also worked with many of the big names—including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.


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