Software-borne features and system virtualization have become key differentiators for automotive OEMs.
Last week at CES, a significant portion of my meeting time centered on the use of system virtualization in next generation automobiles. Car manufacturers (OEMs) view system virtualization as a method for isolating safety and security-critical workloads (e.g. rear-view camera, ADAS, cluster, critical comms) from sophisticated "center stack" operating systems (e.g. GENIVI Linux, Android, Windows Auto) that host app stores, connect to wireless WANs and the open Internet, and generally must be assumed vulnerable to hackers. While the OEMs eye the transformation of physical ECUs and wires to virtual ECUs and virtual wires with some trepidation (after all, it affects the entire system of systems within the car and its supply chain), they generally embrace and encourage this path. Why? In addition to safe partitioning, system virtualization enables OEMs to:
- lower production cost by reducing discrete processor/ECU count and wiring
- reduce weight, footprint, and power consumption for the same reasons--another feather in your green strategy cap!
- gain better visibility and control over the electronic infrastructure, reducing faults and improving TTM
- improve passenger experience by making the various digital interfaces more configurable and enabling information to flow across those interfaces far more easily than the current stovepipe hardware boundaries of today's cars
Very soon (within a couple car development cycles), we will see head units with 8-core processors sporting 10+ GHz aggregate processing power, multiple GPUs, and a full complement of other co-processors and peripherals. These SoCs represent the performance-efficiency way forward for chip manufacturers, who also embrace system virtualization as the natural software architecture for enabling customers to leverage this silicon muscle.
The Tier-1 suppliers have sometimes resisted this concept. By breaking down ECU hardware barriers, implying delivery of virtual ECUs rather than physical, suppliers may contemplate a loss of autonomy and control. Furthermore, Tier-1s have tremendous investment and expertise in electro-mechanical engineering capability, whose value is reduced in a software ECU paradigm. Nevertheless, software-borne features have become a key differentiator for the OEM; the Tier-1 winners of the future will not be the ones who can meet RFP specs at lowest BOM but rather the ones with the best apps and app stores, network integration and speed, security, and multimedia. Herein lies the opportunity for Tier-1s with vision.
When we look back to 2010-20, we will conclude that discrete processor count and wiring content in cars peaked in this decade (we have 200 micros in some models today!), a transformation driven and enabled by multicore processors, virtualization, and the OEMs desire to better manage the vehicular electronics complex.
Dave Kleidermacher is CTO of Green Hills Software. He writes about security issues, sharing his insights on techniques to improve the security of software for highly critical embedded systems.