Have You Driven Our Software, Lately?

by Brian Caulfield

Kids have high expectations for in-car entertainment.

John Ellis, a senior technologist at Ford Motor Co., was shuttling around his daughters in his wife’s car – which isn’t a Ford – when they asked him to replay a Taylor Swift song they’d just heard on the radio.

“Just hit the back button,” his younger daughter told him. Ellis explained he couldn’t do that. Radios don’t work that way.

“Well, that’s stupid,” she replied.

“Don’t worry, Daddy can fix it. He works in software,” his other daughter said.

Ellis – who hasn’t yet solved this one – was one of a half-dozen industry figures who talked today at a CES panel about the future of the connected automobile. The consensus: Cars with the computing power to master the latest software and services are quickly moving from a ‘nice to have’ to a necessity.

And automakers will have to build as much computing power into their cars as they can to keep up with rising expectations of new drivers. That way, features will – as a matter of course – be able to be added to cars with software updates, years after they’ve rolled off the lot.

NVIDIA's Danny Shapiro
NVIDIA’s Danny Shapiro

“We’re already seeing companies doing software updates for their cars,” said Danny Shapiro, NVIDIA’s senior director of auto marketing. “It just extends the life of the vehicle.”

This year, most new premium cars will deploy an array of connected services, observed Thilo Koslowski, a VP and distinguished analyst at Gartner. In two more years, they’ll be the norm. And in another decade or so, you’ll see self-driving cars navigating through city traffic.

“This isn’t science fiction,” Koslowski said. “This will happen to all of us in this room.”

Driving the trend: the sound business case for connecting cars to online services. Once online, cars can tell dealerships they need to be serviced, so the dealer can offer the owner a deal on an oil change.

“If I get a device into a car that’s $100 or $150, how much revenue can that generate for an auto dealer?,” asked Tom Malone, CEO of Voxx Electronics. “That’s a huge profit opportunity that’s around the corner.”

The challenge: automakers have long struggled to keep up with an electronics industry’s hyper-fast product cycles.

Chris Cook, president of the Mobile Electronics Retailer Association, recalled that 13 years ago, a a German car engineer gave a presentation describing the cool electronics in his company’s latest vehicle.

But when asked if there was a way to plug the latest handheld gizmos into the car, he was stumped.

Those connected services and software, however, will need automakers to begin putting more sophisticated electronics into their cars.

NVIDIA, meanwhile, is working to help automakers cram as much intelligence into their cars as they can.

Shapiro showed a video of an Audi taking over for the driver during a highway traffic jam. Last year, this feat required a trunk full of electronics last year. Earlier this week Audi announced they would build their zFAS driver-assistance and piloted driving system with NVIDIA’s Tegra K1 Visual Computing Module.

New technologies, like our new Tegra K1 mobile processor, will make it possible to reduce the size and power consumption of the electronics needed to manage the suite of next-gen car services and sensors.

Moreover, our Visual Computing Module (VCM) allows automakers to slide new technology into their cars, so they can keep their cars’ electronic fresh amid a multi-year auto development cycle.

“In the case of Tesla Motors, they began development with our Tegra 2 processor, and they were able to take that module out and slip a new one built around Tegra 3, without having to change their production schedule,” Shapiro said.

The result: the Tesla Model S arrived on the market  with electronics just as sophisticated as the most cutting-edge smartphones and tablets.