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.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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