Auto makers are adding functions that all depend on connectivity, vehicles are getting connected. That’s a good thing. But they are getting connected in haphazard and slapdash ways, and that’s not good at all. Each car has multiple connectivity needs and, to date, car makers tend to satisfy each need by adding another, different connection. The electronics industry is eager to provide consolidated connectivity solutions, but most major automobile companies remain dedicated to developing proprietary technologies, which means auto makers and their suppliers are figuratively reinventing the wheel on a constant basis.
What follows is an overview of the connectivity requirements by the automobile industry. We then compare several solutions offered by some of the more prominent vendors in the electronics industry.
In-vehicle infotainment systems and telematics units have become top priority for over-the-air (OTA) software updates. Carmakers plan to add new apps and services — ranging from car-sharing to detecting fuel levels — without redesigning the car. A flood of audio and video streaming media — via Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G — is washing over vehicles.
Cybersecurity demands OTA. When there’s a hack, nothing is more important to car OEMs than the agility to send software patches — stat. For software-rich vehicles, OTA is their BFF. Because there is no such thing as bug-free software, vehicles must be prepared to correct software errors.
The next frontier of OTA updates is happening in the whole car. Carmakers need to be able to target not just TCUs (telematics control units) but also the various ECUs, developed by different chip vendors, installed in each vehicle. These ECUs are tasked to control various parts of a vehicle, ranging from engine control to air bags and seat adjustments.
Connectivity must go two ways. Besides the ability to send software patches, carmakers must be able to extract information from vehicles. In the era of highly automated vehicles, massive sensory data generated by cameras, radars and lidars needs to be aggregated, processed, stored and sent to the cloud for AI training. Possibly in a consistent format.
Last but not least, data collected by connected vehicles must be analyzed.
In short, connected cars cover a lot of ground. Connectivity empowers the automotive industry to develop and add new apps and services. Connectivity supports road safety, sends cybersecurity fixes, and advances machine learning. “Car-to-cloud” connected vehicles are a huge market. Every tech supplier, OEM, tier one and tier two is chipping away at it.
Painting a rosy future for connected vehicles is easy. More difficult is figuring out which connectivity solutions are doing what. Bear in mind that no one has gotten all the connectivity pieces down. Anyone who claims to have a “end-to-end” solution doesn’t.
Tower of Babel
At issue is not a lack of building blocks to design connected vehicles. The real concern is that carmakers — as they have done for decades — continue to develop proprietary solutions designed for one but exclude the rest of the industry.
Players in the connected vehicle field — car OEMs, tier ones and tier twos — are building a “Tower of Babel,” observed Mark Singer, director of marketing at Excelfore. An OTA software update solution offered by one company, or designed for one model, for example, does not necessarily talk to another model even within the same company.
Three driving forces for connectivity
The lay of land for connected vehicles is complex. There are, however, three key forces driving vehicles to connect to the cloud.
First is the emergence of “software-defined” vehicles. “Cars are becoming software,” said Raj Kanaya, general manager of automotive and chief marketing officer at Aeris.
Second, 5G and the “infinite scalability of the Internet,” as Harman calls it, are making carmakers rethink how to deliver features and content to a vehicle. Tim Van Goethem, vice president, advanced mobility solutions at Harman, sees the promise of 5G and the Internet enabling car OEMs to “keep adding new features to a vehicle throughout its entire life cycle.”
Third, “data is reshaping the autonomous vehicle (AV) value chain.” Massive data collected for AV applications is making the cloud “an essential building block,” as Danny Kim, partner and director at VSI Labs noted in his company’s technology brief.
Against this backdrop, we will examine who’s who in the connected vehicle market, while breaking down who’s addressing which segments of the car-to-cloud conundrum.
Qualcomm’s Car-to-Cloud Platform
Qualcomm launched its Car-to-Cloud Platform this month at CES.
If you are naïve enough to believe that the vehicle of the future is “a smartphone on wheels,” you might conclude that Qualcomm leading the car-to-cloud revolution is a no-brainer. Hold that thought.
When EE Times asked Qualcomm which parts of the connected vehicle market its Car-to-Cloud Platform is designed to address, Nimish Shrivastava, senior director of product management, gave a measured response. Qualcomm’s immediate mission is to enable carmakers to boost their vehicle’s connectivity performance from 4G to 5G without car OEMs having to change the hardware.
Shrivastava said Qualcomm’s Car-to-Cloud Platform has two key features. One is something called “Soft SKU.” The other is security directly built into connectivity chips. Soft SKU lets field-upgradeable chips “securely support new functionality as performance requirements increase or new features become available.” It ensures a smooth transition from 4G to 5G and enables “regional customization and feature upgrades tailored for specific product segments,” according to Qualcomm. By leveraging its capabilities, OEMs can customize a single SKU for multiple tiers and markets. That, in the end, will help automakers save costs associated with dedicated investments in multiple SKUs, Qualcomm claimed.
Qualcomm’s Car-to-Cloud platform also gives carmakers a flexible way to provision data usage. Shrivastava explained that it’s probably not okay for carmakers to charge consumers for the data usage in OTA updates, for example. Connected car vendors should offer different billing systems, while providing plans to bundle data, services and new user experiences in a flexible manner, said Shrivastava.
Too little too late?
Incumbents of the connected vehicle business see Qualcomm’s entry in the crowded connected vehicle market as “too little, too late.” Greg Basich, associate director of automotive practice at Strategy Analytics, pointed out Qualcomm’s inexperience in managing the lifecycle of a vehicle. Qualcomm also lacks knowledge of ECUs supplied by different chip vendors and designed into different vehicles. Supporting Qualcomm’s own chip in its own Car-to-Cloud platform is one thing. Presenting itself as a serious car-to-cloud panacea for the whole industry is entirely another. “Qualcomm’s car-to-cloud service must be decoupled with Qualcomm’s own chip,” Basich said.
Shrivastava acknowledged the need for Qualcomm’s platform to support other chips in the future. But for now, Qualcomm sees its mission in filling certain gaps it has found in current telematics solutions. Soft SKU will be important for Qualcomm, because all major OEMs are scrambling to make their connected vehicles “future proof.” With Soft SKU’s ability to activate new features – as needed – at device level, Qualcomm will add “life-time value” to their chips deployed in connected cars, Shrivastava said.
Given the complexity of vehicle architecture, the automotive industry can’t simply re-purpose OTA update technology originally invented for mobile phones. That mobile OTA technology cannot update, for example, brake systems, because it lacks the means to extract the necessary delta from a variety of ECUs, whose resources — memory and processing power — are severely constrained.
Nonetheless, Shrivastava insisted that Qualcomm knows something about “bringing different players together” in the “ecosystem.” Qualcomm hopes to replicate in the automotive ecosystem its own success in bringing network operators, content owners and software developers together to enable advancements in features and content of smartphones.
VW-Aeris joint venture
Earlier this week, Volkswagen Group of America announced the formation of a joint venture, called Ventic LLC, with Aeris.
The new JV grew out of a relationship VW had with Aeris. In 2017, the two companies worked together to develop “an IoT platform” to support the embedded connectivity module in cars, a VW spokesperson explained. The JV’s work will include “OTA updates to the embedded connectivity module,” she added.
Beyond that, both VW and Aeris declined to detail Ventic’s mission.
The idea to form a JV appears to have come from both companies’ top management. The decision parallels a major organizational shift announced by VW last fall “ to bring hardware and software design all in house.”
Aeris is a “world-class software company” which has gained credibility among automotive OEMs, Kanaya asserted. To enable car-to-cloud, Aeris offers a mobile suite consisting of TCU and platforms for connectivity, devices and mobile applications. So far, Aeris’ connectivity platform has earned design wins among many car OEMs, said Kanaya. Since 2017 when Aeris struck a deal with Mitsubishi Motors, it has been rolling out additional device and mobile application layers atop the connectivity platform. Aeris also offers “cloud-independent” solutions to customers.
As comprehensive as Aeris’ block diagram above looks in terms of supporting new applications and services in vehicles, Aeris’ solutions remain focused on the TCU.
Phil Magney, the founder of VSI Labs, told EE Times that the VW-Aeris JV is “all about creating a unified telematics platform to support current and future connected services.” This, however, does not support “the iterative data handling cycles necessary to manage a software-defined vehicle architecture,” he added.
Put simply, it’s not built for whole-car OTA updates.