The coming revolution in vehicle technology and its implications

March 29, 2016 // By Thomas Gage and Jonathan Morris
We are on the threshold of a radical change in vehicle technology, driven by crash avoidance technology and delivered by advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS for short.

As automobiles get smarter and increasingly connected, it is technologies like this that will mitigate the inherent risks as highways carry autonomous vehicles and potentially distracted motorists. Programmable devices like FPGAs and SoCs are at the heart of a software-led revolution.


Three vehicles, one revolution 

Now, every day in California’s South Bay, you can commonly see three vehicles representing three world-changing trends in the automotive industry: a sleek Tesla Model S rolling quietly past; a late-model sedan with an Uber “U” in the back window picking up a passenger; and a heavily modified Lexus SUV with a spinning LIDAR on the roof, driving itself down the street while a remote driver, anywhere in the world, collects data. These daily sights represent three technology-driven trends that are simultaneously arriving to significantly disrupt the automotive status quo: electrification, connectivity and autonomy. Each trend is moving at a different pace, but all three have one thing in common: software!  


Software: refining today, revolutionizing tomorrow  

Since 2004, the costs of electronics in an average vehicle have doubled from 20 to 40 percent.  Today’s luxury vehicles commonly contain 100 microprocessors and run 100 million lines of software code, controlling everything from engine timing to infotainment systems.

We are now at a point where software, sensors and processors are delivering entirely new areas of vehicle functionality: not simply transitioning conventional functions from mechanical to electronic control. Both the ADAS systems of today and the autonomous driving systems of tomorrow will rely completely on software to make sense of data from sensors, cameras, the Internet, infrastructure and other vehicles.

Increased complexity of vehicles has already shifted the automotive value chain. The trends of electrification, connectivity and automation will only accelerate this shift in value toward those companies that create electronics and software, and away from OEMs that fail to innovate.


This shift will have two effects. First, software will become a critical market differentiator, pressuring OEMs to shorten product cycles and provide support and updates for legacy systems. Secondly, the shift to software allows new entrants to innovate in an industry with notoriously high barriers to entry.

In a typical ADAS-equipped vehicle, applications such as forward collision avoidance (FCA) are enabled by sensors providing data on the external driving environment to an electronic control unit (ECU).

Fig. 1: The basic ADAS architecture starts with a set of sensors that provide data on driving conditions to an ECU.


This unit then uses software to determine whether a threat is present and operates brake actuators (or potentially, other countermeasures) to mitigate the threat.

The sensors available today for driver assistance applications are the hardware foundation for autonomous vehicles. Tomorrow’s sensors will necessarily be smaller, faster and cheaper. But the real gap between the ADAS systems of today and the fully autonomous systems of tomorrow is seen in software. Regardless of how fast inputs can be processed, the software algorithms that will allow vehicles to drive themselves more efficiently and safely than human drivers in complex driving environments remain the biggest challenge.