Is there still such thing as firmware?

The software defined vehicle brings the shift from firmware to software

October 18, 2021

Firmware is a category of software responsible for configuring and controlling hardware. It is a vital layer that exposes hardware functionality to higher level software in a way which abstracts much of the hardware detail. Since it’s required for a device to function, it was traditionally designed to be deployed once during manufacture and never touched for the lifetime of a device, hence the ‘firm’ part of the name.

Small embedded devices - like the many controllers found in a traditional vehicle - arguably contain only firmware as they were never designed to be updated. When these devices have a fixed and specific job, the mindset of develop-once-for-manufacture was sufficient. However, the automotive industry is at the brink of a transformation towards connected, smart, and electrified vehicles, which has pushed many OEMs to rethink their vehicle network architectures and platforms.

Increasing software complexity of vehicles

Today, it is not uncommon to find vehicles with over 100 individual ECUs communicating via an array of wired networks – CAN, LIN, ethernet, Flexray. The challenges of developing and maintaining vehicle systems with this level of complexity have already led to a shift towards vehicle domain controllers, where these ECUs are consolidated down into larger but more capable computers, responsible for a much wider set of vehicle features.

This has driven ECU software in the other direction; to becoming vastly more complex. Along with increasing consumer demand for advanced vehicle features, a modern vehicle comprises of a network of computers which look architecturally closer to a modest smartphone or laptop than a traditional ECU. Consumer electronics often guides the progression of technology in most other industries, and the evolution of firmware into software is well underway there; PC BIOSes have long since been replaced by remotely updatable UEFI software, and tiny electronic systems like camera lenses and even coffee mugs now have software update capabilities. The line has already blurred between embedded firmware and software, whilst cellular network technologies continue to improve over recent years - a combination that has now pushed OTA updatability to the forefront of automotive software development.

At Beam Connectivity we see the emergence of three key factors that are driving the industry towards increasing investment in vehicle-wide OTA update capabilities:

1. The 'Connected' experience
The ubiquity of modern smartphones that are feature-rich and always connected have raised the bar for consumer expectations of personal devices - vehicles included. When you consider that the average lifetime of a vehicle is many times longer than consumer electronic devices, leveraging software updates to fix issues and bring new features to market becomes a massive win for consumers and OEMs alike.

2. Revenue opportunities for OEMs
OTA capability unlocks new business models, where vehicle options and features aren’t set in stone at the time of manufacture. Vehicles can be produced in far fewer variants, and then features purchased later and remotely enabled via OTA - so called "FaaS" or Features as a Service. This has huge potential benefits for complex systems such as ADAS, which can be decoupled from the hardware development milestones and instead be continuously developed, tested, and then deployed over time through OTA.

3. Cybersecurity
Security is also a growing concern, and rightly so. By definition a connected car will have a broader attack surface, whilst advanced features such as vehicle autonomy further increases the potential impact of that risk. OTA capability allows OEMs to deploy timely security fixes as they come to light, and with the added bonus of doing so without incurring the expense of physical recalls. Regulatory bodies are already in action too, where we are seeing new standards such as ISO/SAE 21434, and the upcoming UNECE cybersecurity requirements for software updates, that looks to become a mandatory condition for type approval.

All firmware will become software

As we move into the future, it will be possible to update an increasing proportion of the lines of code that make up a vehicle. Three years ago, OTA updates were limited to satnav map updates, today we see the whole infotainment system, and in the future perhaps the whole vehicle. The exception here is Tesla who, as software natives, have been bullish from day one about the competitive advantage that OTA updates brings them. What is clear is that OEMs are all moving in that direction, if only much more slowly with safety-critical systems, as the level of assurance required for these necessitate a more rigorous level of testing.

With this shift, firmware will continue to reduce down to the bare minimum as it’sreplaced with more flexible software. Whether to mitigate cybersecurity risks or deliver new features, the automotive industry will become increasingly dependent on remotely upgradable software as vehicles evolve into fully connected platforms. Therefore, a robust OTA mechanism is a key enabler that underpins the software defined vehicle; one that requires a holistic design approach that spans the end-to-end system from vehicle to cloud.


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