In an age of acronym fatigue you would think that marketers would avoid nebulous terms like “Software Defined Vehicle” aka SDV. But Software Defined Vehicle is an industry term that will never be used with consumers; it will only be discussed in engineering teams.
At first glance SDV’s seem like just modern day successors to the awful badge engineering of 1980’s, but upon closer inspection, we see they are the future of the auto industry for many good reasons.
What is a Software Defined Vehicle?
A Software Defined Vehicle is an automobile that can provide notably different performance characteristics based solely on changes to its computer code.
Modern cars and trucks, especially electric vehicles, are covered in sensors and switches that are intended to be configured in different ways for different consumers and different uses. Reconfigurations of the same hardware can result in dramatically different outcomes for drivers.
Imagine a truck that needs lots of towing power being built on the same hardware platform used for a sports car configured for speed.
What Preceded SDV’s?
SDV’s are the modern successor to “badge engineering” which became popular in the 1980’s when large automakers like General Motors with many brands (like Pontiac Oldsmobile Chevy and Cadillac) would build virtually the same vehicle with different seats and steering wheels and dashboards and sell them two different markets sometimes that wildly different prices.
What is the Benefit of a Software Defined Vehicle?
Two words, cost and variety. SDV’s allow auto makers to very quickly produce variants that better meet the demands of specific consumers, all while keeping costs very low.
New entrants into the North American auto market like Toyota, Nissan and BMW in the 1970’s forced the “big 3” (Ford, GM and Chrysler) to rethink their oligopolist companies and start to worry about efficiency by the 1980’s. One way to increase efficiency is to make a smaller number of vehicle designs and then bolt features that are easy to change like seats, wheels, and dashboards. In this way changes to key design elements like wheel base, unibody layout, crash supports (or crumple zones) and power trains can be minimized. That meant the same car could be produced in one factory with three or four different name plates… and price tags.
Since the EV revolution has allowed auto makers to start with clean sheet engineering they quickly found that the most efficient power train solution is what is called a “Skateboard”. The vehicle body and interior (aka the “Top Hat”) is mounted on the skateboard which contains the batteries, axles, electric motors, breaking and steering systems. Virtually all automakers have adopted this approach.
EV Skateboard platforms are what made Software Defined Vehicles so possible and so easy.
How Are Software Defined Vehicles Different From Badge Engineered Vehicles?
Unlike the badge engineering of the 1980’s, however, all of the systems contained in the skateboard are full of computers that allow engineers a wide array of options. For instance, a battery only has so much electricity in it, but how the engineer chooses to have the vehicle consume that electricity can result in drastic performance differences. A high performance Cadillac might have a very high drain rate that allows the vehicle rapid acceleration where as a Chevrolet built on the same top hat might restrict the drain thereby allowing the vehicle a much greater range.
Tesla has gone so far as to cripple the functionality of the hardware it has installed in many of it’s vehicles because it is much cheaper to have one part than it is to design, inventory, and install different parts. The best example of this is the Tesla battery. Tesla needed to offer their Model 3 at a price under $35,000 US to meet US Federal Government rebate requirements, so they used the vehicles software to artificially limit the battery range, thereby justifying a price drop. Tesla buried this option and did not promote it to consumers, but it was available and that made nearly all Model 3’s eligible for thousands of dollars in rebates in both Canada and United States.
Check out this story of how Tesla “flipped the switch” to magically extend the range of their lower priced Model S vehicles to allow owners to escape hurricanes. One of the things that is notable here is that the article appears on TechCrunch, which is a tech website, not a car website.
Are Software Defined Vehicles Good or Bad?
Software Defined Vehicles allow all automobile companies to develop a much smaller number of platforms:
- SDV’s keep parts costs down
- SDV’s allow new vehicles to be very quickly engineered
- SDV’s keep profits up which makes shareholders happy
- SDV’s allow vehicles of all shapes and sizes so there is more variety
- SDV’s keep prices down and that will make YOU happy