By Junko Yoshida

Vehicles are getting connected. That’s a good thing. But they are getting connected in haphazard and slapdash ways, and that’s not good at all. Each car has multiple connectivity needs and, to date, car makers tend to satisfy each need by adding another, different connection. The electronics industry is eager to provide consolidated connectivity solutions, but most major automobile companies remain dedicated to developing proprietary technologies, which means auto makers and their suppliers are figuratively reinventing the wheel on a constant basis.

What follows is an overview of the connectivity requirements by the automobile industry. We then compare several solutions offered by some of the more prominent vendors in the electronics industry.

Why connect?

In-vehicle infotainment systems and telematics units have become top priority for over-the-air (OTA) software updates. Carmakers plan to add new apps and services — ranging from car-sharing to detecting fuel levels — without redesigning the car. A flood of audio and video streaming media — via Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G — is washing over vehicles.

Cybersecurity demands OTA. When there’s a hack, nothing is more important to car OEMs than the agility to send software patches — stat. For software-rich vehicles, OTA is their BFF. Because there is no such thing as bug-free software, vehicles must be prepared to correct software errors.

The next frontier of OTA updates is happening in the whole car. Carmakers need to be able to target not just TCUs (telematics control units) but also the various ECUs, developed by different chip vendors, installed in each vehicle. These ECUs are tasked to control various parts of a vehicle, ranging from engine control to air bags and seat adjustments.

Connectivity must go two ways. Besides the ability to send software patches, carmakers must be able to extract information from vehicles. In the era of highly automated vehicles, massive sensory data generated by cameras, radars and lidars needs to be aggregated, processed, stored and sent to the cloud for AI training. Possibly in a consistent format.

Last but not least, data collected by connected vehicles must be analyzed.

In short, connected cars cover a lot of ground. Connectivity empowers the automotive industry to develop and add new apps and services. Connectivity supports road safety, sends cybersecurity fixes, and advances machine learning. “Car-to-cloud” connected vehicles are a huge market. Every tech supplier, OEM, tier one and tier two is chipping away at it.

Painting a rosy future for connected vehicles is easy. More difficult is figuring out which connectivity solutions are doing what. Bear in mind that no one has gotten all the connectivity pieces down. Anyone who claims to have an “end-to-end” solution doesn’t.

Tower of Babel

At issue is not a lack of building blocks to design connected vehicles. The real concern is that carmakers — as they have done for decades — continue to develop proprietary solutions designed for one but exclude the rest of the industry.

Players in the connected vehicle field — car OEMs, tier ones and tier twos — are building a “Tower of Babel,” observed Mark Singer, director of marketing at Excelfore. An OTA software update solution offered by one company, or designed for one model, for example, does not necessarily talk to another model even within the same company.

Three driving forces for connectivity

The lay of land for connected vehicles is complex. There are, however, three key forces driving vehicles to connect to the cloud.

First is the emergence of “software-defined” vehicles. “Cars are becoming software,” said Raj Kanaya, general manager of automotive and chief marketing officer at Aeris.

Second, 5G and the “infinite scalability of the Internet,” as Harman calls it, are making carmakers rethink how to deliver features and content to a vehicle. Tim Van Goethem, vice president, advanced mobility solutions at Harman, sees the promise of 5G and the Internet enabling car OEMs to “keep adding new features to a vehicle throughout its entire life cycle.”

Third, “data is reshaping the autonomous vehicle (AV) value chain.” Massive data collected for AV applications is making the cloud “an essential building block,” as Danny Kim, partner and director at VSI Labs noted in his company’s technology brief.

Against this backdrop, we will examine who’s who in the connected vehicle market, while breaking down who’s addressing which segments of the car-to-cloud conundrum.

Qualcomm’s Car-to-Cloud Platform

Qualcomm launched its Car-to-Cloud Platform this month at CES.

If you are naïve enough to believe that the vehicle of the future is “a smartphone on wheels,” you might conclude that Qualcomm leading the car-to-cloud revolution is a no-brainer. Hold that thought.

When EE Times asked Qualcomm which parts of the connected vehicle market its Car-to-Cloud Platform is designed to address, Nimish Shrivastava, senior director of product management, gave a measured response. Qualcomm’s immediate mission is to enable carmakers to boost their vehicle’s connectivity performance from 4G to 5G without car OEMs having to change the hardware.

Shrivastava said Qualcomm’s Car-to-Cloud Platform has two key features. One is something called “Soft SKU.” The other is security directly built into connectivity chips. Soft SKU lets field-upgradeable chips “securely support new functionality as performance requirements increase or new features become available.” It ensures a smooth transition from 4G to 5G and enables “regional customization and feature upgrades tailored for specific product segments,” according to Qualcomm. By leveraging its capabilities, OEMs can customize a single SKU for multiple tiers and markets. That, in the end, will help automakers save costs associated with dedicated investments in multiple SKUs, Qualcomm claimed.

Qualcomm’s Car-to-Cloud platform also gives carmakers a flexible way to provision data usage. Shrivastava explained that it’s probably not okay for carmakers to charge consumers for the data usage in OTA updates, for example. Connected car vendors should offer different billing systems, while providing plans to bundle data, services and new user experiences in a flexible manner, said Shrivastava.

Too little too late?

Incumbents of the connected vehicle business see Qualcomm’s entry in the crowded connected vehicle market as “too little, too late.” Greg Basich, associate director of automotive practice at Strategy Analytics, pointed out Qualcomm’s inexperience in managing the lifecycle of a vehicle. Qualcomm also lacks knowledge of ECUs supplied by different chip vendors and designed into different vehicles. Supporting Qualcomm’s own chip in its own Car-to-Cloud platform is one thing. Presenting itself as a serious car-to-cloud panacea for the whole industry is entirely another. “Qualcomm’s car-to-cloud service must be decoupled with Qualcomm’s own chip,” Basich said.

Shrivastava acknowledged the need for Qualcomm’s platform to support other chips in the future. But for now, Qualcomm sees its mission in filling certain gaps it has found in current telematics solutions. Soft SKU will be important for Qualcomm, because all major OEMs are scrambling to make their connected vehicles “future proof.” With Soft SKU’s ability to activate new features – as needed – at device level, Qualcomm will add “life-time value” to their chips deployed in connected cars, Shrivastava said.

Given the complexity of vehicle architecture, the automotive industry can’t simply re-purpose OTA update technology originally invented for mobile phones. That mobile OTA technology cannot update, for example, brake systems, because it lacks the means to extract the necessary delta from a variety of ECUs, whose resources — memory and processing power — are severely constrained.

Nonetheless, Shrivastava insisted that Qualcomm knows something about “bringing different players together” in the “ecosystem.” Qualcomm hopes to replicate in the automotive ecosystem its own success in bringing network operators, content owners and software developers together to enable advancements in features and content of smartphones.

VW-Aeris joint venture

Earlier this week, Volkswagen Group of America announced the formation of a joint venture, called Ventic LLC, with Aeris.

The new JV grew out of a relationship VW had with Aeris. In 2017, the two companies worked together to develop “an IoT platform” to support the embedded connectivity module in cars, a VW spokesperson explained. The JV’s work will include “OTA updates to the embedded connectivity module,” she added.

Beyond that, both VW and Aeris declined to detail Ventic’s mission.

The idea to form a JV appears to have come from both companies’ top management. The decision parallels a major organizational shift announced by VW last fall “to bring hardware and software design all in house.”

Aeris is a “world-class software company” which has gained credibility among automotive OEMs, Kanaya asserted. To enable car-to-cloud, Aeris offers a mobile suite consisting of TCU and platforms for connectivity, devices and mobile applications. So far, Aeris’ connectivity platform has earned design wins among many car OEMs, said Kanaya. Since 2017 when Aeris struck a deal with Mitsubishi Motors, it has been rolling out additional device and mobile application layers atop the connectivity platform. Aeris also offers “cloud-independent” solutions to customers.

As comprehensive as Aeris’ block diagram above looks in terms of supporting new applications and services in vehicles, Aeris’ solutions remain focused on the TCU.

Phil Magney, the founder of VSI Labs, told EE Times that the VW-Aeris JV is “all about creating a unified telematics platform to support current and future connected services.” This, however, does not support “the iterative data handling cycles necessary to manage a software-defined vehicle architecture,” he added.

Put simply, it’s not built for whole-car OTA updates.

Knowing OEMs’ workflow

Asked why Aeris has not ventured into enabling OTA software updates on a variety of ECUs, Kanaya said that the current car architecture can’t yet support it. Whole-car OTA updates must wait for the consolidation of more ECUs inside a vehicle, and for the in-vehicle network architecture to get upgraded.

Where Aeris’ expertise shines, however, is its understanding of OEM workflow, Kanaya explained. If an OEM is adding new features to100,000 vehicles over the air, the process must mesh with the carmaker’s workflow — database, notification, detecting if updates failed or succeeded, etc.

Asked about Aeris’ technical edge, he pointed out, “We have the ability to add new services very quickly.” While end users often suffer from a longer response time to get software updates — sometimes as long as 30 seconds to one minute, Kanaya stated, “We’ve optimized the process to less than three seconds.”

Competitive landscape

So, who does Aeris compete against in the field of OTA updates for connected vehicles? Kanaya said, “We mostly compete with car OEMs and tier ones who are developing their own OTA solutions.”

This walled-garden approach, still prevalent in the auto industry, seems an antiquated business practice. But the reality is, as Strategy Analytics’ Basich explained, “Automakers hate to use something developed or used by other automakers, even if the technology is free and open.”

There is no shortage of examples of carmakers pursuing their own OTA solutions in collaboration with tech suppliers. They include Ford-Autonomic-AWS partnership, Jaguar Land Rover-CloudCar.

BlackBerry, QNX and AWS unveiled a new partnership at the CES earlier this month. The deal, aimed at automotive OEMs, promises to deliver “services, personalization, health monitoring, and advanced driver assistance (ADAS) in vehicles.”

Wind River and Airbiquity announced their own partnership last year, promising a “software lifecycle management solution for connected and autonomous vehicles, one that spans vehicle to cloud.” Under the agreement, Wind River contributes a highly modular, OTA update and software lifecycle management solution. Airbiquity provides “OTA orchestration, campaign management, software and data management, and Uptane-based security framework capabilities.”

300 million connected vehicles

All that said and done, it’s hard to beat Harman, a Samsung company, according to Strategy Analytics’ Basich. Harman’s remote vehicle update service, already selected by 23 major global OEMs, manages more than 30 million connected vehicles. In the eyes of Harman, connected vehicles are already here. It expects the number of connected cars to grow to 300 million in the next five years.

Harman does everything from personalized cloud content to new apps and services configured in the vehicle. But does Harman cover OTA updates on ECUs? That appears to be a different story. It hasn’t happened yet in the current-generation connected vehicles.

It’s the data pipeline, stupid!

In Strategy Analytics’ Basich’s mind, OTA updates for a whole car fall into an entirely different bucket. Excelfore and Aurora Labs are the companies leading that charge.

Excelfore’s Singer observed that few in the automotive industry are focusing on developing a coherent data pipeline that connects from server in the cloud to vehicles, and vehicles to devices inside a vehicle.

Car OEMs tend to be opportunistic, developing a proprietary solution for the moment’s needs. If they build a data pipeline, it serves one purpose in each new model in each new car.

The industry, however, must move faster to whole-car updates and data gathering, according to Excelfore’ Singer. He pointed out that if automakers are serious about perfecting autonomous driving technology, they must be able to pull data — how the software is performing in the real world — consistently. “It bothers me that the automotive industry is talking up autonomous driving, and yet they haven’t even figured out how to do the whole-car OTA updates, or extracting data from a vehicle” in a consistent manner, he said.

Common protocols

The first step in this journey is for the industry to devise a common protocol for messaging over the data pipeline. It must allow the server to talk to each client in the same language, while letting the server probe for the presence of a certain ECU or a sensor inside a vehicle. That probing must take place in order to assess each ECU’s ability to process OTA software.

How eSync system works in the servers in the cloud and the clients in a vehicle. (Source: Excelfore)

OTA software updates for the whole car are not as simple as just downloading software updates. In explaining his company’s mission, Aurora Labs’ CEO Zohar Fox once asked following questions:

Can current OTA update solutions roll back to a previous software version if a problem occurs with the new version? Can they avoid re-distribution of the previous software versions, and write them again on the flash?

Is it possible to update new functionality without rebooting?

Can the solution support different car ECUs: infotainment, safety, powertrain, ADAS, chassis, body and comfort? More important, can it support such ECUs today and in the future, using the same technology?

Can the OTA-update solution meet the reflash time and power requirements of the production line? Can the ECUs be updated with the latest software versions prior to leaving the factor?

Does the OTA solution require client integration work by all ECU vendors in the vehicle ecosystem?

All these questions remain relevant for anyone who tries to do whole-car OTA updates.

It’s critical to proactively analyze the health and performance of lines-of-code deployed on Automotive ECUs (Source: Aurora Labs)

Excelfore is achieving this by building a client-server architecture and creating an abstraction layer that allows a software “agent” to know specific characteristics of a device in a vehicle. This lets Excelfore send various car OEMs’ OTA software updates directly from the company’s eSync cloud platform to different electronics devices.

Aurora Labs, in contrast, is working similarly, not by creating software agents but by compiling a software library including codes from different ECUs, explained Strategy Analytics’ Basich. “It’s a very unique approach.”

Excelfore, in early 2018, provided the company’s eSync technology to an open trade association called eSync Alliance. The Alliance is making steady progress, according to Singer.

As for eSync market deployment, Singer said, “We expect to see five automakers shipping eSync-based vehicles in 2020 in China, Japan and Europe.”

None in the United States yet, however. Last fall, FAW, one of China’s largest automotive manufacturers, announced deployment of the eSync platform. FAW’s new cars, currently in production, allow OTA updates targeting 33 devices — from 24 different suppliers — designed into a vehicle, Singer boasted.

Strategy Analytics’ Basich concluded that although whole-car OTA updates appear slow in coming, recently announced automotive processors will soon realize the next-generation automotive architecture. Whether it is NXP Semiconductors’ new gateway processors, or Texas Instruments’ ADAS and gateway processors, semiconductor suppliers rolling out these new chips know they must make the automotive industry’s number one wish — over-the-air software updates — come true, à la Tesla. Every OEM is jockeying to make their vehicles software upgradeable.