By Maya Ben Dror, Maria Alonso, Nikolaus Lang and Alex Koster

  • Rapid technological change means cars are increasingly becoming supercomputers on wheels.
  • Transformation of the automotive industry has the potential to make mobility safer, more sustainable and more inclusive.
  • The ‘Automotive in the Software-Driven Era Initiative’ is bringing together automotive, new mobility and ICT companies to create positive impact

Long gone are the days when mechanical components represented the most complex parts in a car. Cars are becoming supercomputers on wheels. Increasingly, data, software and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming the industry. We are entering the era of the software-driven vehicle.

This transformation of the automotive industry is the biggest one the industry has had since Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of vehicles, over a century ago. Intelligent vehicles are not only changing the industry; they are also changing how all of us experience mobility. They can positively impact our daily mobility, providing safer, more sustainable, and more inclusive mobility.

1. Safer mobility

Over 90% of the traffic accidents are due to a human driver error, as highlighted by data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other studies. Technology, such as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), can contribute towards the objective of zero deaths on the roads. After all, machines, unlike humans, do not make the same mistake twice.

But how do safety technologies such as ADAS help increase road safety? We can simplify the software-defined vehicle in six key layers. Figure 1 illustrates, in a simplified manner, how these six layers contribute to road safety for a specific use case: identifying an object lying on the road.

The World Economic Forum has worked over the past five years on several initiatives regarding autonomous vehicles (AVs), with the aim to help inform both industry safety practices and AV public policies. One of these initiatives is the Safe Drive Initiative, which analysed the tensions around understanding the safety of AVs and proposed a scenario-based approach to ensure safe vehicles on our roads.

“There are big challenges around the software-defined vehicle. Strong, long-term industry collaboration is key to overcome them in an efficient and safe way.”— Dr Markus Heyn, Chairman Bosch Mobility.

2. More sustainable mobility

Intelligent vehicles can also enable more sustainable mobility. For example, electric vehicles (EVs) require well-functioning software solutions to operate. And, as technology develops, intelligent electrical vehicles will help stabilize the electrical grid. They will be able to favour charging when green energy is available, and even be used as decentralised energy storage units – giving energy back to the grid during high energy demand periods.

By promoting shared AVs we can also see sustainable benefits. For example, New York could free up the equivalent of about 900 blocks of space currently being used for parking, and Los Angeles could cut its CO2 emissions by 2.7 million metric tons per year.

“The industry is evolving rapidly, and we need a common ‘lingua franca’ to provide clarity. The Automotive in the Software-Driven Era Initiative of the World Economic Forum helps to fill this need.”— Georg Kopetz, CEO TTTech.

3. More inclusive mobility

Intelligent vehicles are already simplifying driving with features like parking assist, and once full AVs are on the roads, they will ease mobility for all, as individuals will require neither a driving license nor a driver to go from A to B.

Paired with personalised in-vehicle features and seamless multimodal journeys, intelligent vehicles will ease travel especially for residents of remote areas, as well as the disabled and the elderly. They will also benefit the general population. For example, an earlier study from the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimated that on-demand mobility will account for one-third of trips in Boston, USA.

How to unlock the positive impacts of intelligent vehicles?

Bringing intelligent, software-defined vehicles to life requires a unique mix of capabilities from the automotive and tech industry. To guide the current transformation and unlock the benefits of intelligent vehicles, the World Economic Forum has launched the Automotive in the Software-Driven Era Initiative.

This initiative, carried out in collaboration with BCG, has already brought together over 30 leading companies. The initiative is shaped by a strong ambition: unlock the potential of cross-industry and public-private collaboration to help improve safety, inclusivity, sustainability, and overall system resilience.

The participating companies have jointly developed a common framework of the layers and stages towards the software-defined vehicle. Figure 2 illustrates these transformational stages, together with the key strategic decisions that industry needs to take to advance the journey. Each stage further contributes towards safer, more sustainable and more inclusive mobility. Which aspects of intelligent vehicles are you looking forward to most?