Ultimate Guide to Software-Defined Vehicles

What Is a Software-Defined Vehicle?

A Software-Defined Vehicle is any vehicle that manages its operations, adds functionality, and enables new features primarily or entirely through software.

Software-Defined Vehicles are the next evolution of the automotive industry. They are the foundation of many other advancements, including self-driving and connected cars. Deloitte notes that they ultimately reflect “the gradual transformation of automobiles from highly electromechanical terminals to intelligent, expandable mobile electronic that can be continuously upgraded.”

Benefits of Software-Defined Vehicles

The benefits of Software-Defined Vehicles include:

  • Improved safety via features such as anti-collision systems and driver assistance
  • Increased comfort through onboard infotainment systems
  • Deeper insights into vehicle performance through telematics and diagnostics, allowing for more effective preventative maintenance
  • The capacity for automotive manufacturers to add new features and functionality with over-the-air updates

Software-Defined Vehicles outperform their hardware-defined predecessors across multiple arenas. In addition to being safer, they provide superior comfort and convenience. Since many Software-Defined Vehicles are also electric, they also have considerably smaller environmental footprints.

Optimization is another major draw. Manufacturers can continue improving the driver experience and enhance vehicle performance after a car leaves the factory, perpetually improving the driving experience through continuous development. This represents the most significant paradigm shift the automotive industry has ever experienced, as hardware-defined cars tend to remain generally unchanged throughout their lifecycles.

More Benefits of Software-Defined Vehicles

  • Increased value of the vehicle over time
  • Connectivity between vehicle and smartphone, allowing drivers and passengers to interact with their cars in new ways
  • Continuous connectivity

Software-Defined Vehicle Architecture

As expected, a Software-Defined Vehicle’s software and hardware architecture tend to be incredibly complex, often comprising multiple interconnected software platforms distributed across as many as one hundred engine control units (ECUs). That said, the architecture of Software-Defined Vehicles can be broken down into four distinctive layers:

1. User Applications

User applications are software and services that interact or interface directly with drivers and passengers. These may include infotainment systems, vehicle controls, digital cockpits, etc.

2. Instrumentation

Systems at the instrumentation layer are generally related to a vehicle’s functionality but don’t typically require direct intervention from a driver. Examples include Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and complex controllers.

3. Embedded OS

The core of the Software-Defined Vehicle, the embedded OS manages everything from sandboxing to general operations. These are typically built on microkernel architecture, allowing software capabilities and functionality to be added or removed modularly.

4. Hardware

The hardware layer includes the engine control unit and the chip on which the embedded operating system is installed. All other physical components of the vehicle also fall under this category.
Currently, the most significant obstacle facing Software-Defined Vehicles is that many automotive manufacturers still tightly couple software to hardware. Moving forward, manufacturers will need to adopt more agile, modular development practices and develop applications and ecosystems that operate independently of hardware. This will have the added benefit of improved performance, as manufacturers can focus on the best hardware possible without worrying about compatibility.

Software-Defined Vehicles vs. Connected Vehicles

There is very little difference between Software-Defined Vehicles and connected vehicles.

Both are characterized by extensive safety, convenience, and entertainment features provided and enabled through onboard software. Both integrate multiple software services and platforms through either middleware or APIs. And both incorporate various advanced hardware such as collision detection and ADAS.

The only tangible difference is that, in theory, connected cars have a slightly different use case, explicitly built to interact and interface with their surroundings. Given that many Software-Defined Vehicles now share this functionality, the two are essentially indistinguishable from one another.


What is a Software-Defined Vehicle?

A Software-Defined Vehicle manages operations and enables new features and functionality almost entirely through onboard software.

What software is used in the automotive industry?

BlackBerry QNX is the market leader in automotive software, embedded in more than 215 million vehicles worldwide. The platform’s leadership is expected to persist through 2026. Other significant players in the space include Android, Linux, and Windows Embedded Automotive.

What’s the difference between a Software-Defined Vehicle and a Connected Vehicle?

In theory, connected cars are built specifically to interact with IoT devices in their surroundings. However, in practice, there is very little difference between the two, and they are used mainly to reference the same concepts.

Is Tesla a Software-Defined Vehicle?

Tesla first popularized the concept of Software-Defined Vehicles in 2012. They remain one of the best-known brands in the space to this day.

What’s the connection between Software-Defined Vehicles and self-driving vehicles?

Software-Defined Vehicles essentially lay the foundation for self-driving cars. Many safety features in Software-Defined Vehicles, such as sensors and LiDAR, are also crucial for autonomous driving.

As the developer of BlackBerry® QNX, we are one of the leading organizations in the Software-Defined Vehicle space. For more than forty years, we’ve worked tirelessly to build safe, reliable, and secure embedded systems. And we’re not stopping there—in addition to investing heavily into autonomous vehicle research, we’re also working to enable the connected car.

That’s where BlackBerry IVY comes in. Leveraging QNX, edge computing, and the cloud, BlackBerry IVY empowers developers and automakers with a secure, reliable way to share vehicle data, deliver new features and functionality, and fuel innovation. IVY is compatible with most platforms and shares close ties with BlackBerry’s broad development community.

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