Currently reading: The hidden power of new cars you didn't know about
Cars are now being designed to do amazing things through bespoke software and hardware

How would you feel if you were told your car came with an extra 100bhp but you couldn’t access it? Replace horsepower with computing power and that’s become reality with many new models about to hit the market. 

These cars are being designed to do amazing things via the latest software and hardware, including sensors. But owners won’t be able to access their full potential when new, and may never if they replace their car often.

“We’re doing a lot of prebinding,” Ned Curic, chief technology officer for Stellantis, told Autocar, using his preferred word for over-specification.

"We‘re binding in more capability in the hardware so we can use the software to enable features in the future, an example being two cameras inside the vehicle when you may not have a good use for it at the moment.” Curic dislikes the phrase overspecification, by the way. “There’s no such concept,” he said. He prefers “future-proofing”.

Car makers are doing this because they see enormous value in updating models over the course of their life and selling new features to owners, whether they’re coming to the car new or buying used. Consultant firm CapGemini has predicted that revenue stemming from software will  grow from around 8% of total car maker revenue now to 22% by 2031, a figure of some $640 billion.

The updates, of course, are coming over the air, which means there’s no scramble to include the latest application in the new launch. Instead, you push it out when it's ready.

The problem with that plan is you have to ensure that the computing hardware is powerful enough to accept innovations which might still just be a gleam in the software developers’ eye.

“We are always planning more capability than the vehicle will need,” Nakul Duggal, head of automotive for chipmaker Qualcomm Technologies, said.

Qualcomm has inked a number of deals with car makers, including Stellantis and BMWto feature its Snapdragon chipsets in vehicles, enabling their cars to act more like the Android smartphones that Qualcomm also powers.

Smartphones, however, have a much shorter shelf life than cars, and such is the pace of tech development that older chips quickly become outdated. The same will be true for cars. In 2019, Tesla, a very early adopter of over-the-air updates for cars, said it would need to replace chips in older cars to accept its ‘Full-Self Driving' semi-autonomous suite of software.

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Only those who paid for the software would get the chip upgrade for free. Qualcomm promises not to orphan older chips. “As we keep introducing new products they will always be software-compatible to previous generation,” Duggal said.

Autonomy is one area in which car manufacturers are making sure to ‘pre-bind’ technology in order to be able to flick the switch when legislators allow (and when owners will pay). Lotus, for example, has loaded its Eletre electric SUV with up to four lidar sensors that it says “futureproofs” the car to enable up to Level 4 autonomy.

Bentley is another making sure its forthcoming electric car and subsequent new models will be pre-prepped for a self-driving future. “We will make sure that from 2025, the hardware packaging is there,” CEO Adrian Hallmark told Autocar. Bentley is planning to add either one or two lidar units, but one crucial difference is that they’ll be working from the get-go.

However, they won’t let the driver take their hands off the wheel, at least not until mid-decade, but instead will be running in the background. “We will have some of the technology in but just use it as a form of data gathering to train the algorithm and to train our understanding of the way the cars work,” Hallmark said.

Lidar units are definitely at the expensive end of pre-binding, but the practice of future-proofing new cars doesn’t need to be that costly, even with the risk that you don’t end up using much of the capability.

“It's surprising but it becomes cheaper across a platform rather than just a vehicle,” said Stellantis’s Curic. “Typically vehicles have a limited volume versus platforms, which have a much bigger volume, so it’s cheaper in the long-term.”

Car makers have previously bodged digital capability onto existing combustion-engine platforms, but now they are building more efficient computer architectures that can be expanded across multiple platforms. Stellantis’s STLA Brain, for example, is launching first with Maserati in 2024 and then into 'millions' of vehicles across Stellantis’s 14 brands by 2026.

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Mercedes, meanwhile, will roll out its MB OS computer platform across its range from 2024, starting with entry models on the new MMA vehicle platform.

But no matter the economies of scale you unlock from fitting the same computer platform across multiple models, at some point you have to vary the specification. Cheaper cars won’t need all the bells-and-whistles sensors, while top-end models will still need hardware differentiation that will allow the really clever stuff. 

From 2025 BMW’s Neue Klasse platform will come with what it calls 'address-to-address Level 2+' semi-autonomous capability. But there will be an option to enable Level 3, with proper hands-free capability, including lidar “for higher segment vehicles”, according to Nicolai Martin, head of driving experience at BMW Group.

It's one thing being told that the overly powerful computer and multiple smart sensors in your car will deliver new, as-yet undreamed-of applications; it’s quite another to feel as though your car is unfinished. One advantage of over-the-air updates for automakers is that they can stick to the start-of-production date even if the software isn’t quite ready. Chinese EV maker Nio, in a recent filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, admitted that it had “delivered our vehicles with certain features of our Nio Pilot ADAS system initially disabled” and subsequently switched on. 

The 2020 rollout of the Volkswagen ID 3, the first on the MEB platform, was marred by the lack of some features subsequently added in last year by means of a software update. The car might be ready, but the software was only at the minimum viable product (MVP) stage. 

BMW has used this flexibility to ship new cars without Apple CarPlay and Android Auto this year as it switched chip supplier in a bid to keep production flowing amid the chip shortage.

The company said in a statement that affected customer cars would be updated with the missing software “by the end of June at the latest”. From being complete at the factory gate, the modern car is now a perpetual work in progress. Whether it works for you depends what stage the software development is at.

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Unlocking hardware – good or bad?

Some embedded hardware or software available in new cars is ready to go, but you have to pay to unlock it. This new business model designed to generate subscriptions or one-off payments has sparked controversy, but it continues to be popular among some car makers.

The latest to try it is Smart, the brand reborn under joint Mercedes and Geely ownership with the #1 small electric SUV due next year. That will be available with a heated steering wheel that won’t work unless you pay.

Whether that’s via subscription or a one-off charge hasn’t been decided. On the flipside, a company who is shying away from this business model is Jaguar Land Rover.

“Our experience is telling us that customers do not like it if we artificially disable something from the car that we ask them to buy later,” Gianmarco Brunetti, head of commercial transformation and offer structure at JLR, told the Financial Times Future of the Car Conference in May. “That is not so customer friendly.”

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artill 1 June 2022

I may be completely out of touch, but i cant see many people paying more to have extra features on a car once the thing is already paid for.

And it amazes me that during a supposed chip shortage that car makers would be putting extra ones into cars for features that dont work now, and are unlikely to be used later in a cars life.

If you look at cars as they get older things like air con, heated seats etc fail. Almost no one pays to have them fixed. owners of older cars attitude seems to be, if it will pass an MOT they dont care what still works. They wont pay to fix stuff they already have, so i cant see many paying for something they never had  

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