Software is Carmakers’ Next Battleground Arguably, all innovation in modern cars is software driven.


The use of software controllers in motor vehicles goes as far back as the late 60s with the introduction of a computer controlled fuel injection module in Volkswagen cars. The use of software based electronic control units (ECUs) accelerated and became common in the late 90s, after OBD-II specification was made mandatory when for all cars manufactured in the United States to be sold in the United States.

But since then, the pace of adding software-driven system and driver features has been accelerating rapidly. OEMs are using software controlled engine management software to improve gas mileage and reduce emissions, replace bulky mechanical systems by “x by wire” software, and introduce an array of active safety functionality enabled by highly sophisticated software.

An equally powerful force driving OEMs to make considerable investments in embedded software is consumers demand for feature-rich infotainment systems that support the ever-connected digital lifestyle. OEMs are in a constant neck-to-neck race to outpace each other in offering connectivity and in-vehicle features that they believe will win the loyalty of consumers.

Estimating the consumer value of software based features is practically impossible, it is commonly estimated among OEMs that software-enabled features represent anywhere between 65% and 75% of the overall value of car as seen by the consumer. And this is likely to increase as mechanical systems are replaced by software.

Software allows design engineer pack greater functional density in the same physical footprint with negligible incremental costs, add and remove user features easily, even remotely, and be highly responsive to market demand and competitive pressures. Considering that the cost of “manufacturing” software is very low (we’ll come back to this point later), it’s no wonder OEMs see software-driven features as key competitive lever: differentiation and quick response to consumer needs and competitive pressure.

Software Complexity Drives Poor Quality
The functional density and complexity of software continues to grow at a neck-braking pace. A modern car utilizes dozens of control units that might incorporate 100 million lines of code. The sheer number of lines of code, as impressive as it may be, isn’t telling the whole story. As my research shows, the challenge posed by modern car’s software is far greater than it appears by merely counting lines of code.


OEMs have honed mechanical engineering methods and manufacturing engineering practices over many decades. Quite possibly, no other industrial sector has reached that level of manufacturing and supply chain efficiency.  But when it comes to software engineering, the pictures isn’t as rosy, as is evident by the growing number of software quality problems and vehicle recalls.

There is no official source of statistics about software-driven failures and vehicle recalls, or design defects that can be corrected strictly via software update, such as the now famous software patch Tesla applied remotely to increase ground clearance in order to prevent incidents that have caused Tesla cars to catch fire.

Manual analysis of National Highway Traffic Administration records offers some perspective concerning software defects. 2014 set a record high in software related recalls, affecting nearly 4.5 million cars, albeit this number is quite small, considering that more than 60 million cars were recalled overall that year. While the first half of 2015 saw 19 software recalls affecting little over one million cars, July of 2015 was particularly active month: FCA (Chrysler), Ford and Toyota recalled a total of nearly 2.5 million vehicles for software updates. An unusual peek maybe, but surely a sign of things to come nonetheless.

Although these highly publicized recalls catch headlines, they represent a small fraction—about 5%–of recall campaigns. While in comparison to other mega recalls 5% may not seem like much, these recalls harp on the public’s continued perception of unsafe software and have a significant impact on public opinion and brand image.

If software recalls are relatively infrequent, OEMs issue a large number technical service bulletins (TSBs) that involve software updates on an ongoing basis. My informal research and review of TSBs indicate that more than 35% involve ECU reflashing and that this portion is gradually increasing.

Managing Car Software Lifecycle
The sharp rise in software complexity, and with it, the expected increase in quality issues and security vulnerabilities require OEMs to ramp up their capacity to develop, test and implement software-based functionality.


Aware of the criticality of software engineering, automakers are working diligently to adopt modern software engineering methods and rely on modeling and simulation tools to not only validate design faster and more economically, but also generate code automatically, further reducing development cost and improving quality.

But a point that industry outsides often miss is how software “manufacturing” in the auto industry is different and more complex than in other software rich products. Each ECU must be configured according to the car’s built-in options, destination country preferences and regulations, and similar considerations. Obviously, options that are installed later by a dealer may also require a software update at the dealership.

Software Updates as an Agile Strategy
Rather than using software updates exclusively as an end-of-the-line activity and a means to update software outside the factory, OEMs should consider effective configuration management and software update tools on the manufacturing floor and in the field as integral to the product lifecycle management.


The benefits are numerous:

  • Ability to deliver new or enhanced functionality to vehicles on the road with minimal incremental cost.

  • Effective software configuration management contributes to greater level of software reuse, and, subsequently, improved software quality.

  • Improved configuration accuracy of installed software contributes to reduction in manufacturing floor errors and rework, improve customer satisfaction, and reduce warranty recalls.

  • Improved overall process agility and traceability in software development promotes more effective software quality management.


Software updates—to remedy a design problem, improve product performance, or install an OEM or even aftermarket option– are not merely a way to push new software to the car. They are a critical product lifecycle strategy.  In particular, over the air (OTA) software updates gives automakers the ability continually promote quality, safety and customer satisfaction at practically no incremental costs.

OEMs that have tried to resist using over the air software updates out of concerns for data security and antagonizing their dealers will have to follow Tesla’s lead.  As more safety features are becoming software driven, consumers will demand free software updates 24×7; they will be far less tolerant than Chrysler’s 1.4 million customers that received USB drives via the U.S. Postal Service to fix security vulnerabilities in Jeep software.