IBM Forges Ahead in Automotive

IBM’s Automotive Software Foundry initiative seeks to bring order to the chaotic world of automotive software development and put OEMs back in the driver’s seat.

Some estimates say that electronics and software will account for around 90% of all future automotive innovation and 40% of per vehicle production costs by as soon as 2010. The problem with this if you are an OEM is that as the industry gets deeper into the world of software-controlled electronics, it gets farther away from your traditional strengths in engineering mechanical systems. And though OEMs have added scores of software engineers and partnered with numerous software specialist companies, they are arguably already in over their heads when it comes to managing the increasingly complex proliferation of automotive electronics.

IBM is looking to tame this increasingly chaotic situation for automakers through its ambitious Automotive Software Foundry (ASF) initiative, which seeks to provide the infrastructure tools and processes needed to develop complex software solutions that work together seamlessly. According to ASF’s director, Andreas Eppinger, “Today it is very difficult to say, ‘If I change something in one software system how are the other ones affected?’ There have been many cases of little engineering changes that many thought would have no effect on other systems which actually had dramatic effects. These cases are increasing as the complexity of systems increases.” To mitigate the potential for disaster, IBM essentially wants to help automakers create an engineering data management system in the software and electronics portion of their business. And Eppinger says to do this effectively requires a fundamental change in software architecture. “You have to have a component-oriented architecture: you have to define components, interfaces, and requirements for the operating system. Today there is no standard, no clear definition.”

How Predictable. The chief advantage to a well-defined component-based architecture is predictability. Eppinger says that automakers and electronics suppliers are currently wasting lots of time and money working out software glitches caused by the unpredictable interactions of disparate software programs. So, being able to precisely predict how programs will work together would immediately remove a drag on a project’s budget and speed the development cycle. A further reduction in time-to-market would come from the re-use of robust code across vehicle platforms. Another benefit is the capability to update system software on a program-by-program basis instead of reprogramming the entire system for each minor update as is done today.

OEMs in Charge. IBM designed ASF to help automakers establish a core competency in software and electronics development that today is spotty at best. The reward for OEMs would be the capability to develop unique high-tech systems in-house that could enhance brand image and provide an edge in the marketplace. But in the end, Eppinger thinks that automakers have little choice but to improve. “For the OEMs it is a matter of survival. If you cannot handle complex software systems, you will be out of business.”

Supply Chain Reaction. But if OEMs bring more software development in-house, where does that leave the automotive suppliers that currently provide the code? In very good shape according to Eppinger. He thinks the exponential growth of electronics in vehicles will keep every company willing to invest in the latest technology busy. Indeed, he argues that suppliers will welcome the ASF initiative because they are experiencing the same development pains as the OEMs. Further, greater OEM involvement would allow suppliers to focus on value-added development in their area of specialty rather than worrying about cross-domain responsibilities.

BMW On Board. IBM has gotten off to a quick start with ASF by signing up automotive technology leader BMW. Eppinger says that the initial stages of the project will rely heavily on IBM’s consulting services to target the areas BMW needs to enhance to achieve core competency in electronics and software development. Beyond that, IBM will leverage its recent acquisition of software development tool maker Rational to help provide the code generating capabilities BMW will need.

Both companies are clearly interested in stealing a march on the competition by using ASF to set open standards for future software development. And for IBM, widespread acceptance of ASF would rocket it to a central position in the automotive industry.