The car of the future: a computer on wheels

Those who buy a car today usually drive it for between five and seven years until they acquire a new vehicle. “In the future, cars will change every three months,” says Claus Gruber, an expert in automotive software at the consulting firm PwC Strategy &, in an interview with DW. “They will get new functions and, of course, security features through software updates, similar to what we are used to today with smartphones and laptops.”

The engineering doctor is the co-author of a study that describes the prerequisites for the transformation to a software-based automotive industry. According to this study, software development costs for the new model series will double in the next ten years. Autonomous driving functions are the ones that generate the most costs, with 45% of the total.

The car of the future will be electric, networked and “smart” in terms of automated driving. In addition, there will be digital entertainment on board.

Inconsistent electronics

In today’s cars there is a veritable mosaic of dozens of electronic control units, for example for the engine, air conditioning or window regulators. In the future, these individual control units will be combined into a few powerful computers known as domain controllers. “These central computers are the brain of the car and control all the functions,” explains Gruber.

The software is periodically updated from the cloud via a chip using the 5G network, as with smartphones. For this, visits to the workshops are not necessary.

New business culture

For the automotive industry, this evolution requires a readjustment of company culture. It’s no longer enough to build high-quality vehicles, says Gruber. “We will perform more and more functions in the software. Consequently, an automobile company must also change its culture, in the way of creating the product, (evolve) towards a software company.”

If a smartphone app doesn’t work the way it should, it’s not a big problem. However, in a car, a breakdown of this type can have dire consequences. The computer programs of the vehicles in which passengers are transported must be particularly secure and resistant to malfunctions.

But since the software industry has not yet solved its problems one hundred percent, as every PC user knows from painful experience, management consultant Gruber calls for further cooperation. “The automotive industry and its suppliers must collaborate with the technology industry to jointly offer these new functions with really good quality and safety.”

A great business

One thing is clear: the companies that develop these operating systems have a big business ahead of them. Like software companies. Because margins of 50 percent or more are common in the software industry.

The automaker Tesla has already announced that it will license its automated driving software and also sell it to its competitors if necessary. Its supremacy in this area may partly explain why the American automaker, with a market capitalization of around € 670 billion, is now worth more than three times as much as VW, Daimler and BMW combined.

German automakers react

However, German automakers are already developing their own operating systems, some of which are already in operation. BMW is a pioneer in this regard, with its own BMW OS 7 operating system installed in new cars since 2018. Mercedes-Benz is currently designing the MB.OS platform for its cars. VW is creating a car software organization with the goal of creating its own operating system called VW.OS and is also cooperating with Microsoft.

These kinds of collaborations are liked by software expert Claus Gruber. Because, in his opinion, the transformation of the automotive industry has to happen quickly and will be relatively expensive. “We have to gather the resources we have and the digital talent. My request to the auto industry is that they cooperate more, that they dare to work together.” Because only by working together, he said, will it be possible to achieve the necessary speed. The risks are too great for lone wolves.


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Author: Klaus Ulrich