Competitive Future for Electric Vehicles Relies on Software

Posted on May 17th, 2011 by

Most of the criteria that car buyers use in making purchase decisions are deeply familiar — performance, luxury, dependability, styling — all factors that ultimately determine a vehicle’s price. But one increasingly critical factor is less familiar to the buying public, and that’s software quality. This includes both the quality of the software-driven engineering processes used, as well as the software embedded in the vehicle itself.

If done well, onboard software serves as a highly effective nervous system for a vehicle, fusing microelectronics, sensors, and mechanical technologies into an intelligent, high performance system. Done poorly, however, and software can cause missed windows of opportunity, unhappy customers, or even a massive recall that can damage a reputation for years. As for the engineering process, managing the complexity and design of automotive systems has become increasingly difficult. General Motors is one company which acknowledges that using software in the engineering process is a key competitive differentiator in solving this problem. But how is this advantage obtained?

The manufacturing process

Let’s consider the GM Volt, an example of today’s leading edge technology, as an indicator of what the future may hold for software in the design and manufacturing process. As one of the first automobile manufacturers to produce a next-generation hybrid vehicle, GM defines its new Volt as a “plug-in, range extended electric vehicle,” directly propelled by an electric motor, for up to 40 miles.

GM employed complex software tools to model the interactions of the Volt’s embedded systems, thereby improving the quality and efficiency needed in developing this unprecedented “system of systems.” In addition, IBM supercomputers helped GM design and run crash test simulations and maximize the driver’s comfort and experience through product design simulations. The test-teams met thousands of specifications and validated each of the Volt battery’s 161 components; including tests on the battery for short circuit, corrosion, dust, impact, water submersion, crush and penetration and extreme temperature swings.

As a result, the software development tools and the systems design approach helped GM develop the Volt in an unprecedented 29 months. Traditionally, vehicles require at least twice that time from inception to release. Additionally, cost savings based on software have been significant. GM reduced the number of physical lab crashes to less than 400 per year, down from as many as 600 three years ago, saving time and tens of millions of dollars (some test vehicles can cost as much as $600,000, not including a test dummy that can increase expenses by more than $100,000).

The product

A full 40% of the Volt’s value is based on the software engineering processes and embedded software in the vehicle itself, including an individual IP address built into each car, essentially making every car a computer on wheels; 10 million lines of embedded software code; a 100 electronic controllers in a software ‘system of systems’.

GM’s next-generation car, dubbed the “Car 2.0 Era,” will be networked to the power grid, communications networks, and mobile applications. Additionally, by using a unique IP address; each vehicle has intelligent computing capabilities that truly highlight the ‘system of systems’ concept and the smarter products strategy.

The future

Software-based engineering is also helping GM become a leader in the eco-friendly automobile movement through innovative software options for its customers. Meanwhile, attempts are underway to standardize the vehicle design on fewer software tools and a common, collaborative design process, further enabling global engineering teams to work more effectively and seamlessly.

As electronics assume a greater role in an automaker’s competitive positioning, and as electric and hybrid power help technologies gain greater mind-share among consumers, software will play an even greater role in vehicle value. Last month, with General Motors leading the way, the Big Three Detroit automakers reported a dramatic uptick in profits that may signal the end to the decade long slump in the popularity of American brands. Whether you consider the smaller, more affordable cars like the Chevy Cruze, or higher end models like the Ford Fusion or GM Volt, embedded vehicle software as well as the software-driven processes that govern manufacture and delivery have played a sizeable role in this success.

Written by Meg Selfe, Vice President, Complex & Embedded Systems, IBM Rational. Meg currently is the leader of a new emerging business area for IBM focusing on embedded systems and software as it relates to IBM’s client’s product development. For this initiative, IBM is synergizing across the Automotive, Electronics and Aerospace and Defense Industries the ability to offer a rigorous systems engineering framework for the entire design, development and implementation of embedded software from conception throughout the lifecycle.


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