Volvo Car Group

Volvo: Our friends in software

We speak to Volvo’s head of software platform about the company’s strategy to build a software-defined car

In June this year, Volvo Cars laid out its plans to rethink car production based around the idea of a software-defined car platform. The car maker plans to switch over to fully electric cars by 2030. The company’s CEO, Håkan Samuelsson, believes that by then, cars will be differentiated by their software. Instead of having major hardware components, more and more functionality will be provided through software.

In preparation for this shift, the company has been growing its in-house software development teams and standardising on a core suite of software and hardware platforms. For Samuelsson, the traditional approach of specifying components and having a tier one supplier deliver a black box of hardware running embedded software is no longer an efficient way to deliver new automotive functionality.

Instead, Volvo is developing a central computing platform and in-house-developed software. Samuelsson believes this shift to a software-defined car is almost as big a change for the industry as the move to electric vehicles.

During the announcement event, Patrik Bengtsson, head of software platform at Volvo Cars, described how multiple levels of transformation are driving digitisation of the automotive industry. According to Bengtsson, the changes that are coming in autonomous vehicles, electrification and connectivity have one common enabler – software.

The amount of software deployed in cars is increasing in volume, complexity and value. For Bengtsson, eventually, software will impact, transform or even disrupt every part of the automotive industry.

Computer Weekly spoke to Bengtsson recently about how digital transformation at Volvo is being taken to car production. “We are on a journey,” he says. “When we look at the current architecture of the car, more and more features are software-driven. In the past, car makers relied on tier-one suppliers to deliver these pieces of new functionality as black box software packages. Apart from Tesla, all other car manufacturers do this.”

Volvo’s ambition is to utilise all the advantages that software can provide. In a software-defined car, major pieces of functionality are provided by software. Instead of being recognised for what suspension or engine type it has, a software-defined car would be categorised based on the functions and features that its software offers, says Bengtsson.

Bengtsson, who previously headed up the development of infotainment and driver interaction software for Volvo, says the company’s experience on this new infotainment system paved the way to its software-defined future. “In 2017, when we developed the infotainment system, we shifted to Android,” he says. This represented a major step for Volvo, as the car maker had previously sourced its infotainment systems from a tier one supplier.

A Volvo car will typically use about 180 computers. Bengtsson says the company is reducing this number by moving the computing modules with the most functionality into core hardware components. The core computing system, which will first be introduced on a new Volvo model set to be revealed in 2022, is made up of three main computers. These support each other in operating vision processing and artificial intelligence, general computing and infotainment.

An operating system of operating systems

The next generation of pure electric Volvo models, including the company’s first SUV on a completely new electric-only technology base, will run on Volvo Cars’ own operating system (OS), called VolvoCars.OS. This will act as an umbrella system for electric Volvo cars, as Bengtsson explains: “We are building a system and a software stack all in-house to connect to VolvoCar.OS. The key is to build an API structure that enables our developers to  have access to all car sensors.”

The aim is to incorporate the company’s various operating systems across the car and the cloud, creating a single software OS environment. The underlying operating systems include Android Automotive OS, QNX, AutoSar (AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture) and Linux.

Real-time processing is run on the car’s main computers, but cloud connectivity is also used to provide additional functionality.

Bengtsson says that the approach Volvo is taking will enable faster and more flexible development and offer more frequent over-the-air updates to customer’ cars. “The company’s aim is to make Volvo cars better every day,” he adds.

Thanks to the use of simulators and Android emulators and in-house continuous integration and deployment capabilities, the speed with which new functionality can be added to cars is boosted significantly.

Bengtsson says the hardware being deployed in Volvo cars will have headroom to grow, but it can also be replaced with more updated components without affecting the software. This is analogous to the way smartphone users receive new functionality on existing devices through over-the-air OS updates. But at some point, they may want to upgrade to a new device. 

From speaking to Bengtsson, an interesting fact about a software-defined car is that the base model and higher-end models incorporate the same basic components. The value-add comes from enabling new software functionality.

For instance, a customer may purchase the standard infotainment option, but at a later date may decide to get a software update to enable the higher-quality infotainment features. Similarly, an over-the-air update could be rolled out to improve the battery life  and range of Volvo’s electric cars. 

Read more about tech innovation in automotive manufacturing

  • The head of digital at Audi UK discusses how the luxury car company has revamped its online presence as it shifts gear to drive online sales.
  • Volkswagen’s R&D centre is working with Red Hat to use containerisation to improve how it develops and tests software for the control systems in cars.

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