Automotive Software and Technology: Where Is It All Going?


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In the mid-20th century, cars were exclusively about hardware, and there was no challenge to that status quo. The “perfect” car was the one crafted with the most perfect physical mechanics, and that was that. Horsepower and torque were the only currencies in automotive power.

In the 1960s, however, things started to change with the arrival of computer-controlled components. They were very humble and monofunctional at first, but quickly became more sophisticated and have now evolved into an entire industry within their own right. Today’s blog is all about automotive software — where we’ve come from, where we’re going next, and why it all matters so much.

1968 – Everything Changes

That changed in 1968 when Volkswagen introduced the world’s first computer-controlled system. It was an electronic fuel injection system known as D-Jetronic. It worked using a transistorized electronic module manufactured by German industrial giant Bosch. This was a game changer, but by the late 1970s, the Engine Control Unit was starting to be placed into certain cars, and had become the norm by the 1980s.

The ECU uses a system of closed-loop control that monitors engine output and uses the data collected to then control input. It’s an elegant solution that has continued its development to the point where now the ECU (aka ECM) is by far the most powerful computerized unit within your vehicle.

Below is a timeline showing some of the important milestones in the application of automotive software and computer technology:

1969: Ford follows VW into the computer control game with their new anti-skid system.

1973: Chrysler makes Electronic Engine Control standard on all its models.

1978: Cadillac brings us the first “trip computer” in the Seville; and Mercedes-Benz collaborate with Bosch to develop the first “ADAS” technology, anti-lock brakes.

1981: All GM vehicles come with an emissions-controlling ECM powered by a Motorola 6802

1986: Carnegie Mellon University develops “Navlab 1,” the first-ever computerized self-driving car.

By the time we reach the 21st century, the pace quickens with the development of many software-based technologies. Infotainment evolves from small monochrome TFT screens to full-blown color touchscreen displays with auto makers competing to install the most user-friendly systems. What started as the humble ABS technology in Mercedes-Benz cars evolves into the now well-known Advanced Drivers Assistance Systems (ADAS) sector, which now boasts dozens of technologies with more being added all the time.

All of these advancements, even since the earliest days of Navlab 1, have been building step by step to the “holy grail” of automotive software — autonomous self-driving mode.

Next, we’ll look at why automotive software has become so important right now in 2021.

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Why is Car Software so Important Now?

What started as simple electronic control devices have grown into a huge web of interconnected systems developed at great expense. Software now is being developed with a singular purpose, which is to further the cause of achieving viable autonomous, self-driving cars that are safe and don’t require input from the driver.

This is no mere pipe dream. Market data shows that as software continuously develops and advances, the size of the market and predictions in changes in consumer behavior evolve with it.

Data from AT Kearney shows that in 2020, the global market for automated and autonomous driving, including all its related software and services was worth $51 billion. Here’s how that $51 billion was broken down:

  • $23 billion in apps and goods with digital and physical features
  • $13 billion in special equipment for higher automation
  • $15 billion in fully autonomous vehicles
autonomous driving data

The same data set predicts that by 2030, that total will have grown more than four-fold to $282 billion, with the breakdown as follows:

  • $95 billion in mobile apps with digital features
  • $103 billion in apps and good with digital and physical features
  • $48 billion in special equipment for higher automation
  • $38 billion in fully autonomous vehicles
autonomous driving data

AT Kearney also predict that as the current millennials and Gen-Z drivers get into their prime car-buying years, they will demand greater and greater integration of software solutions to what are their more negative perceptions about cars and driving. Their data shows that an amazing 43 percent of millennials who are currently car owners believe that car ownership is a real pain. 70 percent of the same demographic are surprised at the overall cost of car ownership, and 35 percent of them are still paying off an auto loan.

What does this say for car software? It says that software’s unique ability to make the driving experience simpler will likely become the defining competitive factor for car companies in the coming years. Younger generations are the ones who have normalized things like ride-sharing. While they like the idea of cars in general, it seems, they do not like the idea of having to exert any effort or strain in order to enjoy or benefit from them.

For many, therefore, the crucial role of software is set to be the creation of a kind “Uber that you own” concept. The car will drive you where you need to go, just like an Uber, but it’s your own exclusive vehicle and you can call on it whenever you like and wherever you are.

Automotive Software Vs. Automotive Hardware

Automotive hardware can’t disappear entirely, of course. The car is still made of metal, and still rides on 4 wheels. It still requires suspension, brakes, batteries and more hardware to work properly. The shift to a software-dominated market, however, presents an interesting set of challenges to auto makers.

While just about every major car maker out there has some kind of software-related division, the apparent trends in automotive software are quickly proving that those companies with the strongest software abilities are the ones that are going to survive. Where companies have always placed great emphasis on the development hardware — a lot of which will still have to continue, even as software rises in importance — the new order will demand a shift be made.

With most car companies (among others) following the “Create-Make-Market-Use” of product development, they will have to prepare for changes to that model as software rises in importance. The essential pieces remain the same, but there are shifts in the related costs and strategies that apply to each area.

For example, let’s take a company like Volkswagen. When VW wants to produce a new piece of hardware, the “Make” stage where they actually manufacture the hardware is the most expensive part of that development process. For software, on the other hand, the “Make” stage is actually the cheapest of the four stages. Why is that?

Hardware manufacture comes with a lengthy and pricey bill of materials (BOM) cost. It requires physical supply chains that make everything cost more. Software, however, has almost no BOM cost and uses a digital supply chain where any and all components of the software are stored and moved digitally. There are some costs of royalties as companies use third-party software in some systems. Not everything can always be done in-house.

Conversely, the “Create” stage for car software is much more expensive than it is for hardware. Software development can take years, and in fact has to continue even when the software is production-ready because bugs always surface that have to be ironed out. Hardware doesn’t have this problem.

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Automotive Software – Where Next?

As companies continue to adapt to the changes that more software development brings to their production processes, let’s take a look at some of the key areas of future development in which software’s influence is growing.

Operating Systems (OS)

On-board operating systems started with the implementation of ECUs, which needed control programs to manage their functions. While the ECU continues to require high-tech OS, other areas are also increasingly demanding more sophisticated OS solutions, including infotainment, telematics and ADAS features.

Currently (and increasingly), OS platforms make use of “middleware” which is software designed to bind all the other software elements together like an adhesive. It offers service to apps that are not available from the core operating system, and includes things like drivers and special interfaces.


This sector has evolved hugely in recent decades. Gone are the monochrome screens of bland numbers and letters and here are the most complex now of any automotive software system that you will find. They were always quite complex in their construction, in fact, but now they are even more so.

Infotainment is like a central hub that connects others software together, including telematics (more below), the digital driver instrument cluster and head-up display (if there is one) and more. The inevitable result of its central role is a high degree of HMI, which adds to the burden of development, making them user-friendly, smooth, seamless and responsive.

One big area of development in infotainment systems has long been navigation. Before autonomous driving and “auto-pilot” modes became more viable, the only way to make the drive easier was to ensure real-time step-by-step navigation. How important that remains to the driver when cars are driving themselves in the future remains to be seen.


QNX is the leading platform in on-board telematics system, mostly because it is a principal component of OnStar. It’s also closely linked to infotainment, since many of the telematics suppliers are also involved in infotainment software systems.

Telematics systems are essentially embedded software connected to a SaaS platform, that is then the basis of telematics services. Big providers include OnStar, SiriusXM and others. The next big thing happening among telematics service providers is how to integrate the cloud capabilities of companies like Microsoft and Google.

Smartphone Integration

The next big area of software development is in the integration of smartphone apps. We have already seen the rise in popularity and huge increase in demand for new cars to have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. To that end, there are now 500 car models that work with Apple CarPlay from 65 brands. Android Auto works in a similar number across 60 brands.

One question with smartphone integration is how it might affect the volume of integrated software that car companies themselves need to put into their vehicles. Navigation is a good example here, again. Is there any need for a new car to have integrated navigation and maps software when most people would rather just connect Android Auto and use Google Maps directly?

Smartphone integration could represent a shift, then, in automotive software moving from the car maker’s platform to the App Store and Google Play store. Car software will have to be more about seamlessly connecting the smartphone and the car as one. To that end, many new cars now come with wireless connectivity to Apple CarPlay, which makes the transition smoother.

Conclusion: In the EV World, Software is King

With governments around the world openly declaring war on the internal combustion engine, many places have already signed the death warrant of gasoline and diesel cars. In the UK, for example, there will be no new petrol and diesel car sales from 2030. Even hybrids are getting the axe from 2035. Many European countries have similar plans in place, with other countries following suit. One by one, US states are doing the same, either as proposals or real action.

What does all of this mean for automotive software? The most obvious repercussion of the moratorium on new gasoline and diesel cars (including hybrids) is that production will dramatically shift to all-electric models. EVs promote the role of software from loyal lieutenant to commander-in-chief. This has already been demonstrated by companies like Tesla, who have shown that via over-the-air software updates, companies already can fix not just digital problems with cars, but even mechanical ones, as Tesla did in 2018 when they heard the Model 3 braking distance was less than satisfactory.

Automotive software may have been the junior partner once upon a time, but its role has grown exponentially in both the marketing and running of vehicles. In the coming age of electric-car dominance, it is set to have an even grander role.

The demand for petrol and diesel cars will soon be replaced by electric cars that use more advanced automotive software as the years go by. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, will even phase out gasoline vehicles by 2035, so local car buyers will see more EV models in their local car dealerships in the future. CarBevy can help people get the best car deals in the near future when they are looking for new and advanced cars. Visit CarBevy today or contact us at 832-279-3806 to learn more.

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