Dusseldorf, Munich It should be a release. Volkswagen wanted to counter the headlines with a major software update for the electric ID models. Group head Herbert Diess has been criticized for weeks for insufficient source code. “We’re learning, we’re catching up, we’re delivering,” Diess wrote at the start of Software 3.0.
But Diess’s first praises came too soon. The Handelsblatt has learned from dealer circles: the update has not yet reached customers of the old ID models. When the new basic software was to be installed in VW workshops in April, the relocation was interrupted. Approximately 200,000 vehicles are affected. From VW it is said that the distribution of the software will finally begin in a few days.
The road from the traditional automaker to the tech group is bumpy for German manufacturers. The development of software-defined vehicles overwhelms them. Jan Becker is not surprised. “So far there hasn’t been a traditional automaker that has created a coherent software platform,” says software start-up founder Apex.ai. “Much of the software is rewritten over and over for each model generation.”
In an emergency, BMW and Mercedes are pushing for cooperation with chip companies such as Nvidia or Qualcomm. Volkswagen, on the other hand, wants to develop more and in the future generate up to a quarter of its sales of 250 billion euros with automated driving and entertainment solutions. Such sums attract powerful tech companies.
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Earlier last week, Apple caused a stir with the unveiling of an extended “CarPlay”. Not only is the content of an iPhone mirrored on a vehicle screen. The new CarPlay will be adapted to all screens. It effectively takes control of a vehicle’s entire user interface.
Speed, range and navigation are also displayed in the instrument cluster in the “Apple design”. The first vehicles will be equipped with the improved CarPlay in 2023. Apple also lists Mercedes, Audi and Porsche as known partners.
At least one at Mercedes is surprised. Because an agreement with Apple does not exist. According to the official statement, only options are being evaluated. Internally the phrase in Mercedes is: “Only on our terms”. loses data sovereignty. “We reject it,” Magnus Östberg, head of Mercedes software, told the Handelsblatt.
Its group relies on its own operating system which controls everything from the unit to infotainment to apps, without a middleman. “That’s the point. This is the only way we can learn to understand which features our customers like and which don’t,” explains Östberg.
VW and BMW argue alike. The Germans don’t want to be demoted to sheet metal benders in the digital upheaval. But their experience in the new world is limited. They have to compromise and rely on different strategies.
Mercedes is pushing the pace, with help from Nvidia
Mercedes wants its MB.OS operating system to be ready within two years at the latest. The Stuttgart-based company is still on schedule, digital guru Östberg assures: “We are way ahead of what some people out there think.” The reason: Mercedes does not deliberately develop its own chip-to-cloud architecture on its own.
“Speed matters to us. And with strong partners we are faster, “says Östberg. His goal is a perfect symbiosis of hardware and software. Instead of the hundred control units per vehicle that are usual today, all bodies with a star must have only a few domain controllers. This reduces the complexity.This is expected to start with the new CLA in the second half of 2024.
The core is the MB.OS, which consists of four domains: driving and charging, infotainment, autonomous driving, as well as vehicle and comfort functions. Each area receives specifically different processors. Mercedes is silent on the details, a capital market day is scheduled for July. Only in the case of highly automated driving is the partner already clear: Nvidia.
The US chip group will equip all Mercedes series with upgradeable computer architectures in the future. Nvidia can get paid well for this service. Over 40 percent of automated driving software package sales end with Nvidia.
Internally, this revenue share is controversial. Mercedes supporters point out the advantages: more know-how and lower costs. MB.OS costs a total of over four and a half billion euros.
Mercedes is relying on cooperation in other ways as well. For Ethernet communication, it works with Vector Informatik’s Swabian programmers. When it comes to infotainment, the Stuttgart-based company swears by a mix of open source and Linux. US tech firm Unity Technologies is expected to help create 3D interfaces with worlds flowing into each other instead of traditional tiles. “This is digital luxury,” explains Östberg. When it comes to app integration, his team also relies on vendor Faurecia Aptoide.
Ultimately, the first version of MB.OS is just an “intermediate step”, insiders complain. The most effective solution, a fully centralized zone architecture with the shortest possible cable routes, could be implemented in 2027 or 2028 at the earliest.
It pays off that Mercedes neglected the development of electrical and electronic components and related software. Therefore, now the maxim applies: better second best than nothing.
BMW wants to become independent with its own middleware
Unlike VW, the Munich-based company didn’t do much public relations when it came to updating their vehicles. BMW has been able to update over an internet connection for much longer than the largest European car company.
Like Mercedes, BMW is partnering with a chip maker on automated driving: Qualcomm. BMW is also developing the software with the US chip group. BMW does not disclose how future sales of software packages will be divided. Since Qualcomm takes over the sales, most of it should stay with the Americans.
Compared to the Mercedes-Nvidia model, there is obviously a difference in the BMW-Qualcomm constellation. Insiders report that the Munich-based company has been laying the groundwork for software development in recent years, quietly and in secret. “BMW has developed a kind of simple middleware,” says one expert on the subject.
Middleware ensures communication between various software programs. “Thanks to this simple middleware, the BMW software works independently of the hardware,” says the insider. If BMW wanted to change the chip maker in the future, the Bavarians wouldn’t have to rewrite the entire software.
Apex founder Becker sees this as a “game changer” for the auto industry. “This is the only way automakers can achieve a balance of power with chip companies. If that fails, they would be completely dependent on the chip makers, especially in times of chip shortages, ”says Becker.
But BMW is under pressure. Munich’s first truly software-defined cars won’t start until 2025, 13 years after Tesla’s Model S.
Volkswagen is ambitious, perhaps too much
No established automaker is pursuing such ambitious plans as VW. The inhabitants of Lower Saxony want to program at least 60 percent of the software in the car themselves. Together with Bosch, Cariad writes the algorithms for automated driving. These will run on Qualcomm chips from 2026.
It is not yet clear which processor VW will use for infotainment. The talks on this are in the final stage. From corporate environments it is not said that it will not be Qualcomm, you do not want to make yourself too dependent. Like BMW, VW is working on a middleware solution that would allow the software to run independently of the hardware, likely alongside Bosch.
The software and the chip for automated driving and infotainment together form the so-called E2.0 architecture, behind which VW’s operating system hides. But the schedule for the VW.OS is shaky because Cariad is still working on the E1.2 architecture. This interim solution uses completely different codes than E2.0. According to the group, only 30% of the software of the E1.2 architecture can be reused. The automated driving software also needs to be completely redesigned.
Also: Cariad employees are annoyed. Works council circles say employees feel they are at the mercy of the power struggles around Wolfsburg. VW, Audi and Porsche CEOs would blame each other for not sticking to schedules. This would overshadow the progress Cariad is making.
Failed software update for ID models joins a long list of problems. Last year, VW promised its customers a software update every twelve weeks. But there are problems with the implementation.
“Somehow it went under the wheels”, is Wolfsburg’s comment. Software developers are more than busy and have to postpone activities. Everything will improve in the second half of the year: this is the new promise.
Moreover: Without executives with onboard programming skills, software-defined vehicle development cannot be successful.