The Code Now Runs the Car—Tons of it

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The Code Now Runs the Car—Tons of it

BY TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Look at all the shiny new automobiles rolling off the assembly lines. Ever more of them come equipped with nifty touch screens that allow access to myriad functions both affecting the driving experience and infotainment. There are continuous readouts for miles-per-gallon, odometers, GPS, surrounding awareness, views for helping park and more. There are interfaces for Bluetooth smartphone access with one-touch dialing and hands-free operation, there are audio controls for conventional and satellite radio, for audio (thank goodness, not video) entertainment and more.

Deeper down in the vehicle there are electronic control units with software for controlling nearly every aspect of the car’s operation from engine to braking systems, stability control and airbags. Active safety systems use radar for adaptive cruise control, sensors warn of drifting out of the lane—the list goes on. Even the windows, wipers and other non-obvious things are under control of the embedded software buried deep within what is evolving into an intensely complex web of embedded systems. And we haven’t even mentioned Internet and remote access such as the ability of police to request a manufacturer to shut down a vehicle that is being pursued. Yes, this has happened. And God forbid we should bring up the possibility of hackers breaking into automotive systems while they are on the road. As far as we know, that hasn’t happened—yet.

So you carefully consider all the wondrous features and options offered with an array of vehicles and decide on a purchase. Dealer, bank or lending institution is happy to help and off you drive. You buy fuel, keep up with maintenance and make payments and one day the title arrives in the mail. Now you actually own the vehicle free and clear, right? Not so fast.

Does that title say anything about all the code embedded in the car? No. There is no transfer of the intellectual property rights to any of the software in that car. In fact, there seems to be very definite taboos associated with it. I was once at an Embedded Systems Conference where one of the featured activities was to watch a group tear down embedded devices to identify what made them up. They disassembled such things as a Segue scooter, and other interesting items with interesting sensors, actuators and ICs. At one show they were tearing down a Toyota Prius identifying which graphic chips it used, which communications ICs, etc.

I insolently raised my hand and asked if they had managed to disassemble the software to see how it actually worked. The reaction was almost paranoid. “We couldn’t do that because the software is proprietary and rigidly protected.” Indeed it is, but it is not possible to understand the function of such a system without understanding the code. So what they had was a fairly boring parts list.

The explosive growth of the software content of automobiles is relatively new and it is safe to say that consumers have not fully appreciated its implications. For that matter, neither have manufacturers. When they do, things could get interesting. So far, relatively few of the newer “software heavy” vehicles have made it to the used car market, but that is merely a matter of time. There have already been a number of recalls on several models that have simply required a software patch or upgrade—something we’re all familiar with in other areas. But what about software maintenance or continued licensing? These are things we haven’t completely encountered yet, but we could.

Maintenance is of course familiar in the form of recalls and recalls are motivated either by government regulations or concerns about safety or corporate reputation. But there are certain “options” that cost the manufacturer nothing because they are already built in to every vehicle. There is, however, a charge to enable them. For example, one brand has a low tire pressure indicator that lets the driver know that a tire is low. It’s up to him to figure out which one. The upgrade displays all four tires and their individual pressures. Enabling that simply involves a software switch—for a price.

But what if automobile manufacturers get the idea that software could constitute a continuing revenue stream? As far as I know we haven’t seen this yet but it is certainly possible for manufacturers to consider, say, a seven-year license on the code contained in a car with annual maintenance or license fees to be paid beyond that. Shut down functions—with sufficient warning for safety—could be built in and made so that they can be prevented only by a licensed dealer on payment of a fee or perhaps remotely.

This might be manageable, if annoying, with vehicles in the hands of first or second owners with clear links back to a dealer. But what about down the line when cars end up in Wizard Wally’s used car lot? Will an independent auto software maintenance industry emerge? That is doubtful given the jealousy with which information about the code is guarded. But with the continuing explosion of software content in automobiles it at least makes sense to think about the possible implications for the future.