Software-driven cars are creating a need for a centralised operating system.
Software-driven cars are creating a need for a centralised operating system.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pexels)

CENTRALISED OPERATING SYSTEM Towards a centralised operating system in self-driving cars

Author / Editor: Jamie Thomson / Isabell Page

The importance of software in cars has grown significantly in recent years. According to McKinsey, in 2010, the average vehicle had approximately ten million Software Lines of Code. By 2016, the number had grown to approximately 150 million lines.

One solution to achieving level 5 autonomy quicker is to unify car operating systems into one, centralised unit. Let’s take a closer look at the current state of centralised operating systems in self-driving cars.

The benefits of a centralised operating system

With a centralised operating system, all of a car’s functionality would be controlled by one body. A single control centre would hold all information about every autonomous vehicle on the road, including personal data about drivers and passengers. In theory, centralised operating systems would make traffic management easier to handle and make our roads safer.

From a manufacturers point of view, a centralised OS would introduce manufacturing and component standards, ensuring that quality and safety is at the forefront. It would enable more flexibility in how software is used as the same code could be input across many vehicles. It would also make it easier to roll out software updates using software-over-the-air delivery. Car owners wouldn’t need to visit dealerships for updates and vehicle security could be enhanced with bugs and recalls handled remotely.

What would a centralised OS look like in a driverless car?

The concept of a centralised operating system isn’t entirely new. In fact, Tesla vehicles operate from a centralised Linux-based platform and almost all upgrades and fixes are made over the air.

The Volkswagen Group with its brands VW, Audi, and Porsche are also planning to centralise the operating systems of their vehicles. In a recent interview with Arts Technica, Christian Senger, Head of Software at VW Group said the company builds over 10 million cars a year that run on eight different electronic architectures. Centralising these into one system would allow for more efficiency and flexibility in the manufacturing process.

A centralised operating system in a level 5 autonomous vehicle would be responsible for controlling acceleration, braking, steering and avoiding obstacles. It would also be in control of infotainment like music streaming and satellite navigation.

Safety would be at the fore in a centralised system with steadier acceleration and braking. Energy efficiency would also be a primary objective and a centralised OS would use power as sparingly as possible to avoid the need for continual charging. Any issues with the vehicle would be reported to the manufacturer as they as they occur and fixes would be applied as soon as possible.

The challenges of building a centralised operating system

Perhaps the biggest challenge in building a centralised OS is cost. As well as being highly functional, such a system would need to consider the User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design. As the system would be used by manufacturers and software engineers market-wide, it would also need to be highly accessible, all of which requires significant funding.

Secondly the creation of a centralised OS would require collaboration between all major car manufacturers and several technology companies, so clear processes would need to be put in place to ensure interoperability. Another factor would be time as such a large undertaking would likely require significant planning and be subject to delays and disruptions.

A centralised system would require increased driver surveillance, which presents the challenge of how to handle personal data. In our previous article, Is there too much data going in and out of cars?, we cited a statistic from McKinsey that suggests global revenue from car data monetization will grow to between $450 - $750 billion by 2030. As such, car data is big business and concerns over data ownership and privacy will need to be handled in a transparent way to gain people’s trust.

How a centralised operating system might impact consumer buying decisions

The introduction of a centralised operating system will likely have an impact on consumer purchasing decisions. Buying a new car today, requires significant research as every model has its own features and functionality. Variables such as engine size, fuel type and customisation options all factor into a consumer’s decision to buy.

A centralised system will remove many of these variables from the buying process as most of the hardware and software choices will already be taken care of. We might, therefore, expect consumers to place more emphasis on the look of a vehicle rather than on performance and safety. As such, manufacturers will need to think of new ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

In summary

As we move closer to realising the reality of fully autonomous vehicles, it’s likely that some level of centralisation will be required in operating systems, not least, to ensure the safety of drivers and pedestrians.