A history of computer code in cars

A history of computer code in cars

It’s a well-used adage that ‘software is eating the world’. And one of the realms where this is very much coming true is in automobiles. But how did cars go from four wheels and a manually-cranked engine to a rolling data center complete with internet connectivity and voice assistants?

The first chips in cars were introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s to manage simple functions such as fuel injection and transmission shifting. Today electronics is used to handle everything from locking doors and calculating fuel efficiency to emergency braking, traction control and automatic parking. Rather than a server rack in the boot, cars rely on dozens of microprocessor-based Electronic Control Units (ECUs) which control different parts of the vehicle.  And yes, they can even play Doom.

Smartphones on wheels driving in smart cities

GM’s Driver Aid, Information and Routing (DAIR) system in the 1960s was the first to make an attempt at giving the driver real-time information. It never made it to mass production, but shows the automobile industry has had serious technology ambitions for a long time.

The modern car has some 100 million lines of code, compared to a few million for your ‘average’ jet. Facebook has a mere 60 million, while Windows 7 has around 40 million. Today cars are often described as ‘smartphones on wheels’, and are only growing in complexity. Even back in 2008, Frost and Sullivan was predicting cars will soon reach 200 or even 300 million lines of code, while driverless cars will generate an estimated 4,000GB of information a day.

As well as an increasing number of interactive screens – which essentially give cars smartphone-like features – they are now becoming connected to the internet.  Connected cars are the biggest growth area for new SIM card activations - AT&T now has around 13 million cars on its network in the US, and added around 4 million cars last year alone. As well as enabling cars to use any number of traditional apps, internet connectivity gives cars the ability to send telematics about the health of the car to the manufacturer for pre-emptive servicing, and automates things such as fuel and parking payments. The software in the cars is becoming updatable over the air in the same was as smartphones, a trend pioneered by Elon Musk’s Tesla.

“With dozens if not hundreds of sensors in a car, Gigabytes per hour of data can be collected and processed by tomorrow’s car,” says Martin Booth, Director of Marketing, Automotive at Western Digital. “Of course, not all of this data needs to be stored, and even all the data that is stored cannot be physically transmitted to the Cloud, due to the cost and latency of the bandwidth available on the road.”

“Manufacturers will have to decide what data is of critical value (for example, service information, or map changes) and will need to buffer much of that data locally before transmitting it securely to and from the Cloud.”

As we move into the era of the Smart City and IoT, there’s also a growing interest in Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) where vehicles communicate with each other to pass on information such as sudden breaking; and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) technology; where vehicles interact with the infrastructure around them to better manage the flow of traffic.

“The value of the data collected by fleets of autonomous vehicles will enable manufacturers to deliver better products and services, reduce insurance costs, optimize city planning and have a host of other benefits that we are only just starting to see the beginning of today.”


Every company is a software company

“Car companies have always been technology companies,” says Booth. “But software and data are becoming increasingly important, and the way many consumers ‘consume’ transportation in the future is changing dramatically – offering new challenges and service models for OEMs.”

The likes of Ford, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, General Motors, Volvo, and Honda have all a physical presence in California to tap into the technology talent of Silicon Valley.

2015 saw Jaguar Land Rover open an automotive tech lab up in Portland, Oregon, last year invested $15million into Palo Alto, California-based Connected car startup CloudCar and join a venture capital fund exclusively targeting mobility startups, and has announced intentions to move into the autonomous vehicle space.

“Vehicles are arguably the most complex pieces of technology available to purchase,” says Alex Heslop, Director Of Electrical Engineering ay Jaguar Land Rover, “and we are placing huge focus on recruiting programmers and electrical engineers as shown by our Crack the Code recruitment campaign and our Heslop recent partnership with Udacity.”

The company seems unperturbed, and even optimistic, about technology companies trying to muscle in on its turf.

“Changing customer requirements fuelled by increasing connectivity has prompted technology companies to enter the automotive playing field. It’s exciting, it’s forcing us all to be competitive and innovative. We have lots to learn from each other and lots of opportunity for collaboration.”

This changing landscape sees OEMs transforming from manufacturers into data companies with a moving medium. In March of last year, Ford announced it was creating a separate Silicon Valley-based subsidiary company, Ford Smart Mobility, to focus on technology, software, and services. At a London Tech Week event a few months after the launch, Mike Nakrani, Head of Ford Smart Mobility Europe, said that while no official numbers or goals were in place he could foresee a 50/50 revenue split between Ford Auto and Smart Mobility by 2020.

“The value of data in the car is going to dramatically increase as cars become connected and functions such as autonomous drive, augmented reality and mobility as a service become common,” says WD’s Booth. “Today a car might generate Megabytes a day, but by 2020 this may rise to Gigabytes or even Terabytes; this brings many challenges. In-vehicle storage has a special set of requirements that differ significantly from consumer electronics and even data center applications.”

But with more data being generated and processed, the on-board computing requirements are going to skyrocket, which means not only will the automakers need to rethink how cars designed, but also how and when they send data back and forth.

“Sending everything to the data center and back to be processed is not an option because latency can be unpredictable and a car needs instantaneous reaction times, and needs to be designed to support this level of edge computing performance.”


The driver experience is changing

Where once drivers had to use choke valves to manually manage the ratio of fuel and air in the engine, today things are becoming more sophisticated.  

Tesla was the first company to replace much of the central panel with a large screen, and the idea was taken to its logical conclusion by Chinese startup Byton at this year’s CES. Today we’re moving into the realm of voice interfaces with the likes of Nuance’s Dragon Drive, or Ford partnering with Amazon to bring Alexa into its cars.

“The automotive industry is poised to witness more change in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the past 50 years,” Jaguar Land Rover’s Heslop says. “The opportunities to use AI, AR, Voice controls etc. to give our customers back more of their time is truly exciting.

Augmented Reality windshields have long been a staple of concept cars, but never made it to production. A number of companies tried to bring heads-up displays to cars via additional devices to various degrees of success. However, given that technology is becoming increasingly commercialized for the wearable space, it’s entirely possible such features will make it into mass-produced cars in the near future.

Of course, if and when autonomous vehicles become the standard way to get around, the inside of a car could well be as comfy and connected as your average smart home.


Security challenges

As with anything involving technology, however, there’s a catch. With an increasing reliance on software comes an increasing number of challenges around security. We’ve already seen remote hacks of Jeeps while on the road - as has the Tesla Model S - while lax security in its companion app meant the Nissan Leaf could be tampered with.

“The automotive industry is continually looking at improving its passenger safety,” says Joe Pindar, Director of Product Strategy at Gemalto. “But the problem with connected cars is that there is a threat it has never seen before and it can be thousands of miles away from the vehicle.”

We’re probably not at the stage where hundreds of cars can be hacked simultaneously and commanded to cause chaos in the streets – though of course you can always find an expert who says otherwise – the sheer possibility means car cyber-security should be taken seriously.


Tesla’s Elon Musk has previously said a fleet-wide hack of his cars is “one of the biggest risks biggest risks” to his company. There has already been demonstrations of connected cars being subject to DDoS attacks (and little reason they couldn’t be used as part of a botnet). The FASTR consortium of automotive manufacturers has warned that connected cars could suffer ransomware attacks; which would be very bad for a personal driver but potentially crippling to any transportation-based businesses. And given that one person purposefully turned their car into a cryptocurrency miner, it’s not hard to imagine crypto-mining malware making its way to vehicles.

“As the automotive industry is pressured to put more information and entertainment services in vehicles, they haven’t been thinking about how this impacts security. The traditional approach has been to assume that car systems cannot be controlled remotely, and hence there is no need for security controls inside the car.”

“With the impact that a hack could have on the physical wellbeing of someone now almost as important as the breaks, car manufacturers need to start adopting a security by design approach for all vehicle systems. Protection must be implemented from day one, right through to creating the physical prototype. Authentication, encryption and a key management strategy should be an integral part of the end-user process.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Over-the-air-updates provide a way for companies to remediate software-based security issues – which previously involved a recall or a trip to the garage, and incumbent security companies such as McAfee and Trend Micro as well as newer startups such as Karamba and Argus are starting to grow the field of automotive cyber security.

BlackBerry is one company with a long history of car security through its QNX platform, and at this year’s North American International Automotive Show (NAIAS), the company debuted Jarvis, an analysis tool designed to spot potential vulnerabilities in vehicle code.

But Gelmalto’s Pindar thinks there’s more to securing codes than scanning for malware and known vulnerabilities:

“From a security design view, it would make more sense to focus on what software can be used inside a car: Separating trusted software that could interfere with the vehicle operation -  such as the speedometer [which could] cause personal harm - from untrusted services such as the entertainment system, and tightly controlling the security of the trusted software by confirming it hasn’t been tampered with and can only be sent to the vehicle from a trusted source. The advantage of this approach is that security vulnerabilities in the non-essential, untrusted software will not impact the vehicle’s operation.”


Open Source cars?

Hacking your own car – whether to improve security or simply for the fun of it – isn’t as easy as cracking open your average Android device. However, 2016 saw an organization called OpenGarages.org release the Car Hacker's Handbook; a hacker’s version of the Owner’s Workshop Manual that explains the computer systems and embedded software in modern vehicles and how to perform your own software checks. It’s author Craig Smith said the book was for “traditional mechanics who want to get into the electronic aspects of cars but have been stymied by the lack of information about this aspect and the taboo around it.”

Of course, most vendors won’t want you poking around their hardware or software. Farmers in the US have been locked in running disagreements with tractor-maker John Deere over the fact the company’s terms forbids any repair and modification to it’s equipment. This forces farmers to either use the company’s expensive dealers or find illegal hacks in an effort to fix their own vehicles. It has led to famers being a part of the ‘Right to Repair’ movement while the likes John Deere and Apple are pushing to prevent customers from being able to modify their own devices.

So, could we see Open Source cars in the future? A number of car rental and ride hailing companies such as Lyft, Didi, Uber, and Bla Bla Car have joined a group, called the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, backing the idea that all autonomous cars in urban areas should be owned and operated as fleets by private companies, but some companies are pushing for a more open future.

Comma.ai was founded with the idea of selling devices that would give manually-operated cars autonomous functionality. However, after the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) expressed concern over Comma One device, founder George Hotz simply released the software and hardware designs to the public to avoid dealing with regulators.

As well as the software to operate a self-driving car, there are a number of platforms designed to help train them. Companies such as Microsoft and Intel have opened up platforms that can be used to train autonomous vehicles, and a number of projects have looked to use Grand Theft Auto 5 as a simulated training environment.

Another company is Udacity. The online education platform offers a number of courses around self-driving cars, and as well as its own Unity-based simulator for training systems, it ran a project to try and build an open source self-driving car. The project was successful enough for Udacity to spin out a new company, Voyage, as an autonomous taxi service.

Cars have come a long way in the last 120-plus years. On the outside they have largely remained the same ‘box-on-wheels’ design for a large part of that history. But on the inside, they have evolved into some of the most complicated technology you can buy today. Who knows how that will change over the next 100 years.


Also read:
InfoShot: History of the self-driving car
Driverless cars: Infrastructure must prepare for 2025
Only Connect: The challenge of making connected cars a reality
What does the future of driverless cars look like?
Whether by pod or autobahn, driverless cars are coming
London Tech Week: Driverless cars will change everything, automakers still at ease
Connected Cars World: Auto makers still adapting to a changing market
Connected cars conference UK: Government & industry perspectives


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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