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Opinion: Enablers of disruption in transportation

by Mike Millikin, editor, Green Car Congress

This post is part of the ‘Think Further’ series sponsored by Fred Alger Management. For more “Think Further” content, please visit”

The car has become the most computationally complex high-tech device with which the vast majority of consumers will ever come into contact—let alone own. The car has also become a focal point for the development of innovative and entrepreneurial technologies, services and business models designed to enhance and evolve not only the basic efficiency of vehicles, but also the way in which they are used alone and as a part of a larger multi-modal transportation eco-system.

There have been and continue to be a number of market drivers forcing this evolution: concerns over health effects, congestion, consumption of petroleum-based fuels, climate change, an ever more rapidly increasing population and what appears to be an inexorable movement toward large-scale urbanization. The auto industry has known for a long time that business-as-usual was literally unsustainable.

Globally, the automotive industry is being driven to provide more fuel efficient, less polluting and more electrified vehicles primarily by regulatory pressures, although consumer demand is playing its part as well. Within that broader context, however, are a number of technology areas which are not only helping automakers meet their regulatory requirements, but also changing the nature of the relationship between consumers and cars even during the short- to mid-term (5 to 10 years out).

Among the key technological enablers of this disruption in the automotive industry are microprocessors, software and sensors. A recent study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants found that current top-end vehicles have as many as 100 ECUs (electronic control units) and run on more than 100 million lines of code. For comparison, a Boeing Dreamliner 787 has about 15 million lines of code—about 10% of the amount expected in autonomous vehicles of the near future.

Helmut Matschi, member of the Executive Board of Tier 1 automotive supplier Continental, recently noted that “Software is developing into the single biggest enabler of innovation in the car.

In-vehicle electronics—microprocessors, sensors, actuators, instrumentation panels, and controllers are critical in the design and operation of engine controllers; traction motor controllers; safety systems; advanced driver assistance systems; chassis control; measurement and diagnostics; navigation systems, emissions monitoring, communications, and, last but not least, entertainment.

Volkswagen unhappily provides a now-infamous example of the foundational role of processors and software in modern cars; its clever software defeat device monitored different sensors and inputs to determine whether or not its vehicle was being tested on a dynamometer or was driving on the open road. The software then adjusted its emissions control calibration accordingly.

Achieving regulatory standards for fuel consumption and emissions across the wide variety of operating conditions and loads experienced by a car requires increasingly capable—and increasingly intelligent—software control. Programming in hard “maps” to adjust engine and emission parameters has been industry practice for quite some time.

However, as the number of potential data inputs increases (variable valve timing, variable valve lift, variable effective compression/expansion ratio (Miller cycle, Atkinson cycle), fuel pressure, fuel injection timing, fuel injection rate, fuel injection events, fuel reactivity, turbocharger boost pressure / vane control, exhaust recirculation rate, combustion chamber design and exhaust aftertreatment system control) and as the output requirements increase (more stringent regulatory targets), the static map approach is impractical. Engineers are turning to model-based controllers.

Further, recognizing that the different driving styles and habits of different drivers have a tremendous impact on actual fuel consumption and emissions performance, researchers are now investigating ways of having the controllers adjusting their calibrations online in response to the different driver behaviors—in other words, a customized profile for each driver. (Earlier post.)

This is not just an issue for combustion engined cars; to deliver as much range as possible, electric cars need to manage their power consumption—a task also assigned to controls and controllers. Much of Audi’s work on its new all-electric SUV (e-tron quattro), for example, is focusing on the software control of the twin electric motors on the rear axle that give the vehicle the cornering performance of “a hunting dog after a rabbit”. (Earlier post.)

When it comes to implementing new types of more fuel efficient combustion models in advanced engines, the enabler is, again, software and controls.

Those are just a few examples. Overall, the proliferation of software and controllers is forcing a rethink in terms of overall vehicle architecture: electronic architectures need to be consolidated, while the interconnecting pathways—i.e., the computer network within each car—needs to be streamlined. As an example, the adoption of one-pair 100 Mbps Ethernet networking within new cars has been rapidly increasing. (Earlier post.)

One of the most perceptible shifts in the automotive world is the rapid movement to connected vehicles (enabled by these microprocessors, software and sensors)—and the advent of different levels of autonomous driving. The basic framework of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication enables an entire range of disruptive services from advanced driver assistance, to fully autonomous driving, to new models of mobility services that may change the fundamental usage patterns of vehicles that have dominated for decades.

Endowing the vehicle with the cognitive capabilities needed to deliver these functions requires what the industry calls “sensor fusion”—the ability for a central processing unit to take the inputs from the increasing number of sensors on the vehicle and process the data in real time to determine what needs to be done.

An outgrowth of that is the coming of Gigabit Ethernet (1000BaseT) to the car. Gigabit Ethernet will be used as a network backplane to connect the other computational/control domains of the car, as well as to provide direct, uncompressed high-speed connectivity for certain critical applications—high definition video for real-time object identification for advanced safety systems and autonomous vehicles, for example. Fabless semiconductor company Marvell has just introduced the first automotive Gigabit Ethernet transceiver, conforming to what appears to be the emerging standard (802.3bp). (Earlier post.)

Another outgrowth of this movement to the software-intensive car is the need for over-the-air (OTA) software updating. First brought mainstream by Tesla’s Model S, OTA has been gaining rapid adoption, with automakers such as BMW, Hyundai, Ford, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz now offering OTA software updates. OTA technology provider Movimento notes that this capability for “software defined cars” will eventually result in production versions of the driverless car and the other major advances rewiring the auto industry.

In short, vehicles are becoming more cognitive and responsive—and also more controllable. This shift from a dumb platform (essentially a powered wagon) to a smart and responsive platform gives us the ability to reshape the future of transportation into a more sustainable form.


Account Deleted

Thank you Mike for this interesting opinion. I very much agree with everything you say. Software more than anything else is going to define the future of transportation.

One of the reasons that I am so excited about battery electric cars is that they are far less complex to make than cars with combustion engines. They do not need super complex programmable combustion engines, they don't need super complex and programmable exhaust treatment systems and they don't need super complex and programmable transmissions. They replace all that with simple electric motors, a simple gearbox and a simple battery pack. The barrier to entry in the auto industry has consequently been lowered probably by a factor of ten. You need less than one / tens of the resources to start a new auto making company today if you just stick with pure battery electric vehicles. Tesla is the proof of that. They made the Roadster with less than 50 engineers, they made the first Model S with a few hundred engineers and they have made the Model X with about a 1000 engineers working on the design for just a few years. Model X is new in so many dimensions and push the border for what a car can be and do that it is incredible that it could be done with so little work. Other auto makers are using 10s of thousands of engineers to develop their cars and some of them have been doing it for almost a hundred years accumulating thousands of patents. Tesla, Apple, Google and even Sony have all said that the barrier to entry is much lower now in the auto industry with the reinvention of battery electric cars that can rival and surpass their combustion siblings.

Moving ahead it is going to be even less of an effort to make a new BEV because you will be able to buy many of the parts for such a car from companies that will offer them tomorrow but do not offer them today. For instance, getting automotive grade battery cells for 150 to 200 USD per kwh is not possible today as those that make them at that price are sold out for years to come. For instance, Tesla will start to sell their cells to others once they can make enough to meet their own demand. Google will make the autonomous software that will enable other automakers without this technology to license it from Google and get started with autonomous cars a year or two after striking a license deal with Google. In my opinion there will be more entrants to the auto industry in the coming years and not just Apple. And they are all going to use software (and physical design) to differentiate their transportation products from the rest in the industry. But we will see.


One downside of all this complexity is the demise of the shadetree mechanic and the local repair shops; those of us who could RIY (Repair It Yourself) are left to the mercy of the company who owns the IP, the software code and the diagnostic devices.

The car companies are pushing, and have been for some time, the idea of leases, which is nothing more than a fancy name for renting the car. And, the companies that are selling car sharing are also on the rise. Th trend is indeed to not own a car; but, to pay for its use.


Software companies typically build product that is designed to require maintenance or become obsolete relatively quickly. Tesla has recently been hit by consumer reports as not reliable, but the needed components are very reliable, it is the software/tech junk add-ons that they have had problems with. I guess the car companies know the EV drive trains are too good and won't cause enough problems for them to make more money on repairs, so they take a page from the tech industry and add on purposely failing components.


@Henrik, for once I have to agree with you.
The engines and emission systems of electric cars are much simpler than those of ICEs.
I imagine the battery packs are a lot more complex than a fuel tank, though nothing like an engine management system.
All the infotainment stuff will be the same.
The simplicity will continue until they try serious self driving cars (and I do not consider the tesla model S V7 one of these yet) and then it will explode again unless someone comes up with a breakthrough in image understanding and machine learning.

So you will be able to have a simple manually driven car and a very complex automatically driven one.

I would like to bet e100 that a Tesla will kill someone within 2 years (either in the Tesla or by the Tesla).

All it will take is some clown falling asleep in "autopilot mode" and it won't end well.


@ lad,

As one of those shade tree types, I very much agree with your sentiment. In a world where functioning means layers of service providers to enable simple integration with the physical world,

The high and would be priests of old and current have had this sort of influence over us mere mortals since the 'con' was conceived.

People are adept at exploiting knowledge when it is not freely disseminated or accessible. In this manner the consumer is 'hooked', The advertising industry lures us in - entry is free band few are expected to leave.

There should be a long list of disenfranchised persons with genuine practical reasons to feel ripped off by the old extortionist behavior that accompanies 'exclusivity' in the industry.

The electric vehicle is a better fit for a plug and play upgradeable or customised approach as we see in the P.C. marketplace.
The entire Electronics industry relies on specialisation and integration. Without that basic principle, in todays world,NOTHING works.

This mirrors the open source community participation in coding,electronics, or say 3d printing and cad design.
The market expands as(ordinary) people are enabled.

As the market size increases (though many traditional car users are opting out), makers should - if the products are any good - make their income from supplying configurable product AND provide the technical support as required up to full open source access.

As this would be several years post release or end of warranty, it would apply to previous generation technology and not be relevant to competitors future designs. Though one always hopes
for long model runs.

Tesla seem to understand that copying the leader will not be sufficient to ensure success.Refining and improving worthy product however will.

It is important to recognise the virtues of new technologies and how that can be allowed and encouraged.

Protera's bus platform, GM's partnering with LG for motor control, third party supply chain options for battery suppliers,
Various multi configurable model platforms from several big auto makers becoming the norm.

The attractiveness of open source philosophy could well see it as defacto industry standard.I see many propriety makers have very poor market penetration at a time when markets can be short lived.

While change can be slow and ad hoc, we can be sure that the street level tech's can help advise both makers and consumers.
If it doesn't work for the street tech I can assure it won't be 'pleasant' for anyone else.

I expect that there will be some wins some flops but the direction will be enhanced by player inclusivness.
Lets hasten slowly and stay optimistic in rationality.

Account Deleted

IMO autonomous BEVs is the future of the auto industry with autonomous taxi BEV services taking over the market for private ownership of 15,000 to 35,000 USD gassers. For autos costing 35,000 USD and above private ownership of autonomous long-range BEVs will eventually be possible. However, autonomous BEVs will not be produced in very large numbers until we see a commoditization of some of its key building blocks like, battery cells and packs (say from Tesla and LG), electric motors and gearboxes (from a variety of traditional auto parts supplies), autonomous software systems (from Google), autonomous sensor systems (say from Sony and Samsung) and processors (from Nvedia, QUALCOMM and Intel).

If you combine a commoditization of the key building blocks for autonomous BEVs with industrial 3D printers I could imagine a huge number of industry entrants for the auto industry making niche cars for a large variety of wealthy consumers just like there is a huge number of watch makers and delis. I do not think future BEVs will be difficult to repair. A diagnostic system could tell you which components that needs replacement and where to order them. It could even provide a visual guidance for how to replace them. Most people will leave all that to their local auto shop but I don't think it will be impossible for an engineer to RIY.

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