How many people do you see every day using a 20-year-old cell phone or computer? Unless you happen to work at the Computer History Museum or some government departments, chances are the answer is zero. On the other hand seeing cars built prior to the mid-1990s used on a daily basis is not the least bit uncommon.
Over the past two decades the automotive and technology industries have been steadily converging as the engineers that enable our mobility integrate capabilities that we rely on in other parts of our lives. However, as vehicles become rolling smartphones that will someday be able to guide themselves to any destination we desire (at least those within battery range) it’s critical to remember that are also some critical differences between our computing and transportation devices, most notably their lifespans.
The complexity of modern cars and the regulations they must adhere to mean that it typically takes four to five years to bring new models to market and when they arrive they are frequently equipped with computing technology that has already been used elsewhere for several years. Being built to preserve the lives they transport means those cars are far more durable than the slab of glass, metal and plastic in our pocket.
We’ve already seen cases where the machine outlasts the technology it carries such as first-generation General Motors Onstar systems that became inoperable when analog cell phone networks were shut down. As we become ever more reliant on the software to preserve even basic functionality for self-driving, we unfortunately can’t assume that the electronic hardware will keep pace with the latest developments from Silicon Valley or Shenzhen.
NASA faces this same difficulty on a much larger scale when it sends exploratory probes to other planets. Once a rover is on the surface of Mars, it’s not getting any hardware upgrades. The solution is to improve the software and update it remotely which the engineers at Johnson Space Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have used to good effect to keep rovers that were designed for a 90 mission working for more than a decade.
Back on earth, Nuance Communications is the company that provides the voice recognition software for almost every product that doesn’t come from Google. Unlike Google’s voice recognition that relies on that company’s cloud infrastructure to recognize what we say, most Nuance automotive systems are embedded locally and don’t rely on connectivity to work. At a recent product demonstration, Arnd Weil, vice-president of automotive at Nuance explained that since most automotive electronics can’t be upgraded in the field, company the only way to improve the voice functionality is to enhance the software.
“Since the hardware in the car is fixed, our engineers have worked to make the software more efficient so that we can expand the vocabulary and improve the speed,” said Weil. “We’ve been able to update many vehicles with our software to give them better performance and capability.”
This is a critical distinction from what typically happens in Silicon Valley where the software engineers rarely look back. They write new versions of apps to take maximum advantage of the latest and greatest hardware with old hardware being left behind. Apple is a great example of this. Every year when they introduce new versions of the iPhone and iOS, they tout the fact that it runs on older phones as well. What they rarely discuss is that much of the new capability relies on new hardware and the older phones are incapable of using it. Updating a two to three year old phone typically leaves it running much slower than before. The same applies Android (assuming they get updates at all), Windows and other platforms.
For a machine that frequently stays in service for 15 to 20 years or more, that’s not an acceptable solution. Nuance is setting a very good example here with its voice recognition software but voice recognition is just one small piece of the puzzle. As cars incorporate increasing levels of connectivity and automation, it will be critical for automakers and suppliers to continue supporting electronic systems with software updates that enhance performance for years after they roll out of the factory.
To date the only automaker to do this is Tesla which has consistently pushed updates that enhance the battery management, powertrain and other systems in the three years since launching the Model S. Tesla recently shipped an update for the Model S that enabled Auto Pilot functionality on cars built since mid-2014 that have the necessary sensors installed. In addition to demonstrating the practicality of modern electric cars, regular over-the-air software updates may turn out to be the most important legacy of Tesla.
This article was written by Sam Abuelsamid from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.