When Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, was head of Volkswagen Group, the influence of computers on automobiles was just beginning. He decreed that each of the brands owned by the group develop its own software capabilities, reasoning that the competition between the brands would lead to better outcomes for the group as a whole.
The idea is certainly not novel in management history. General Motors originally followed a similar strategy, with each of its brands developing their own engines, transmissions, and design language. It wasn’t until much later than GM realized one pushrod V-8 engine is very much like another and standardizing components across multiple brands would lower costs and boost profits.
Many of today’s cars have multiple electronic modules that control things like antilock brakes, electronic ignitions, entertainment and air conditioning systems, and electronically controlled transmissions. In some cases, a new car can have as many as 70 electronic modules running software obtained from as many as 200 vendors. Getting all those digital devices to work together seamlessly and reliably is a major challenge for automakers.
Christian Senger, head of the Digital Car and Services division for Volkswagen Group, tells Ars Technica, “Software is extremely complex nowadays. Each function is connected with everything — in the car, in the cloud, with the dealers — and we see that too many projects are in too much trouble. The process chain is not stable anymore; there’s so much inefficiency to this process.
“Today, we build more than 10 million cars a year. But they are running on roughly eight different electronic architectures. In mechanical engineering, I would call us a platform champion. We defined how global industrialization of brands and markets really works. In software, there is no reason for having eight different architectures.”
Senger points out that the Android operating system is capable of running perfectly well on smartphones that cost as little as $60 to those selling for $1000 or more. He says Volkswagen will now go in the opposite direction from the one Ferdinand Piëch mandated decades ago. It will consolidate all of its software development into one new division that will employ up to 10,000 people within the next 5 years. The objective is to create a single unified automotive operating system that will run everything from a VW Polo to an Audi A8.
“What is an operating system in the automotive world?” Senger asks. “Today we have an extremely different setup if it’s infotainment, if it’s the chassis, the powertrain. Whenever we exchange something, we have an impact on everything. What we are now doing with these so-called enabling functions is taking them out of customer functions, putting it in a middleware software layer. And this is what we call an operating system.”
Senger specifically references instances in which a non-functioning GPS module can disable a vehicle completely because it contains the master time function needed for the powertrain to run. In other cases, a balky infotainment system can cause similar issues. “Eventually, that’s going to mean a single software stack common across VW Group’s vehicles — everything from the instrument displays and the infotainment to powertrain and chassis management plus a common connected car infrastructure and cloud,” Ars Technica writes.
Android Is The Platform Of Choice
Senger says Volkswagen has decided to use Android as the basis of its new software architecture, particularly because of the robust third party app ecosystem that is based on Android.
“I think we need to open up,” he says. “So Android will come in cars, giving customers access to this enormous ecosystem. But really be careful how much Android you’re talking about. There are some brands really using Google’s automotive services. This is not our strategy. When you do this, you get a great package of function and services, no doubt. But you also have to open up all the car’s sensor data [to Google], and when I say all, it really is all sensor data.” (Emphasis added.)
In the new platform, the traditional CAN bus will be mostly replaced by a small number of multiple domain controllers connected by ethernet, an approach that is just now starting to be used in MEB-derived electric vehicles like the ID.3 that are based on the latest MEB chassis.
Ferndinand Piëch may have had a good idea 30 years ago. (Or not. Reportedly it, was his inflexible dictate that Volkswagen diesel engines meet emissions standards without using expensive urea injection systems that led directly to Dieselgate.) But Volkswagen is peering into the future and recognizing that the old way isn’t the best way forward.
Designing a complete vehicle operating system is a costly undertaking. Just as Volkswagen has expressed an interest in sharing its MEB electric car platform with other manufacturers, it could possibly offer its new operating system to other manufacturers as well, which would be another revenue stream for the company. Volkswagen has not said anything about doing such a thing yet, but it would come as no great surprise if it did.