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Your Car is your new Mobile Device.
Tech's new hottest sector?
I came across an article in the Detroit Free Press that piqued my interested recently. GM looks to hire tech talent from massive job cuts in Silicon Valley1. I had honestly not given much thought to the software stack in cars, especially those with internal combustion engines. Maybe it’s just because my car is 9 years old and doesn’t have CarPlay or anything fancy like that. But I do appreciate that I can connect my phone over Bluetooth, even if it’s a little spotty at times. With the most recent headlines about Yahoo laying off 20%2 of its staff, a lot more people are going to be out of work. While I’m not a large Substack, I’d like to boost these software job opportunities for anyone that is out of work, and if people could share this that would be wonderful. So, if you are currently searching for a job, here are the job boards for the Big 3 for software engineers.
The auto industry is the lifeblood of Michigan, but I also think it’s a great place to live (though I may be biased living here 😀). Since I don’t want this post to just be a job ad, let’s look at how cars have become dependent on software.
Smart Cars 🚗🖥️
Software has powered cars for over 30 years. At first, this manifested as a way to control the electronics and safety systems. Airbags are a major safety component of modern cars, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that they became mandatory. While a monumental lifesaving technology, there were accidents where the injury that resulted was from the air bags themselves. In an effort to reduce these, in the early 2000s The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated occupant crash detection3. In it they said…
to require that future air bags be designed so that they create less risk of serious air bag-induced injuries than current air bags, particularly for small women and young children, and provide improved frontal crash protection for all occupants by means that include advanced air bag technology.
This advanced air bag technology required more sensors and software to power them but proved vital in limiting airbag related injuries when accidents occured.
In the 2010s the NHTSA began testing cars for rollover resistance. One of the biggest aids in preventing roll overs comes from Electronic Stability Control (ESC). This was mandated in all cars by September 1st, 20114. But ESC alone was not a silver bullet and roll overs still happened, so auto manufacturers also strengthened the roofs of cars, allowing them to support their weight in an upside-down position. This required strengthening the supports around the roof and the frame which combined with other improvements required rear windows to become smaller, as glass is not structural. Reduced rear visibility and the growing dominance of large SUVs over Sedans caused a higher incidence of back over accidents, where individuals (mostly small children and senior citizens) were accidentally rolled over while the car reversed. Some cars manufacturers began to add rear cameras to their cars to reduce the likely hood of these accidents, as well as improve safety when backing up, but it wasn’t required. It wasn’t until May 1st, 2018, that full compliance for backup cameras were required in cars 10,000lbs and under5. Much of the push for this change came from the family of Cameron Gulbransen, a two year old boy who tragically lost his life due to a back over accident.
Tik Tok leads us to our next feature. Anti theft measures, such as the Engine Immobilizer Unit, make it harder to steal cars. This technology is standard on most cars today. It prevents cars from being turned on by cutting off the ignition or fuel supply to the engine. When car owners turn the key in the ignition, the key fob transmits a code, which is picked up by a receiver in the car and decoded. If the codes match, the car turns on. Hyundai and its child company Kia opted against this system in their 2011-2021 Souls, Sorentos, Tucsons and Elantras. Viral Tik Tok videos showing kids participating in “The Kia Challenge”6 have surfaced showing teens breaking into and starting Kias with nothing but a screwdriver and USB device. Hyundai is finally fixing the problem with a software update7, but not after insurance companies threatened to stop insuring their cars in some states8.
Lane assist is another feature that has been around for decades. It was first trialed in luxury vehicles, like the 2001 Nissan Cima9. There are four types of systems. The first is called Lane Departure Warning (LDW). They alert drivers when they start drifting using vibrations or warning sounds. The second is called Lane Keeping Assist (LKA/LKS), and on top of the features of LDW, will also take action to prevent an accident if the driver does not react fast enough. Lane Centering Assist (LCA) is the third type and helps keep the driver between the lines as well as prevents oversteering.
Finally, there is Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), which will follow the road markers with no need for human intervention. In addition to lane assist many higher end cars also feature Adaptive Cruise Control, which allows the car to vary its speed to maintain a preset distance from the car in front of it. But the holy grail of all these features is Autonomous driving.
There have been attempts to create autonomous vehicles for at least 50 years. This was mostly done at testing facilities and on private roads. The modern era of autonomous vehicles really kicked off in 2009 when Google started Waymo, their self-driving car project. For almost two years they tested their modified Prius on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. It wasn't until The New York Times broke the story in October of 201010 that it became public what Google was doing. Tesla has also thrown its hat into the ring of autonomous driving, with their Autopilot technology. Tesla's Full Self Driving (FSD) beta became available in 2020, after over 6 years of testing, and is currently being beta tested by Tesla owners.
The infotainment system on a car is a critical component to a cars success now adays. If we look at Google trends, we see that the words usage has skyrocketed since 2012.
This coincides with large screens in cars becoming more common due to back up cameras. Many car companies have their own bespoke interfaces for their infotainment systems, complete with company branding. Auto companies have realized they can replace buttons and knobs with touch elements, simplifying their design (much to the chagrin of some people). They have also realized that people will consider their cars over competitors if the software experience is better.
Finally, there is a whole software industry designed around supporting cars. With the rise of Apple CarPlay in 2014, and Android Auto in 2015, drivers can seamlessly connect their phone to their car, allowing for specific apps to be controlled like turn by turn navigation using their voice assistants. Apps like Uber and Lyft support an entire economy of gig workers, with Flywheel doing the same for Taxi Drivers.
This is all on top of electric cars becoming more prevalent, and not only needing additional software to manage the motor and batteries, but also having more opportunities to have electronic software features due to the cars being essentially a big battery bank. This is in contrast to most gas powered cars, where certain combinations of aftermarket features could require a battery and alternator upgrade.
If all this has not been enough to convince you about the rise in car software, then let Ford do it. Ford indicated at CES 2016 that their new F150 Trucks are running 150 million lines of code11. For context the Linux Kernel has over 30 million lines of code. That's a staggering amount, though most modern cars are using 1 factor less.
That’s still millions of lines of code for each car. With all these sensors and software, it should come as no surprise then, that the Auto Industry was hit hard by the global chip shortage. Indeed, before the shortage autos accounted for 15% of the total fab space. Let’s look at how that happened.
Global Chip Shortage 🌎🚢
Due to the increased amount of software in cars, when the Covid-19 pandemic happened, it spelled doom for auto manufacturers. People expected the impacts to the supply chain to affect the raw materials and parts needed for cars, but many didn't realize that most cars have 1500 or more semiconductors as well. Outlets predicted a decline in car purchases12, and automakers themselves scaled back production. China had already seen an 80% drop in sales volume for autos in the month of February13 and everyone braced for the worst. Chip makers already strained by the increased demand for laptops, cellphones, and other work from home items, probably breathed a sigh of relief when automakers reduced orders for semiconductors in the 2nd half of 202014. But when car sales proved to be resilient even in the face of the pandemic, they found they couldn’t get the fab space when they tried to ramp up production again.
This led to companies like Ford being forced to sell cars with missing non safety critical chips15, or worse not being able to sell them at all16. Unfortunately, in 2023 we are still feeling the effects of the chip shortage, though it has lessened. Companies like GM have taken steps to alleviate this pressure,17 recently striking a deal with GlobalFoundries to manufacture chips. Other companies are doing the same or are adjusting production to compensate. Before the pandemic, it was customary for automakers to have a 60 day supply of vehicles ready to go18. But GM's CEO Mary Barra recently said...
We will never go back to the inventory levels that we were in the past
And why is that? They simply don’t have to. Customers have shown that they are willing to wait longer for new cars than before. Also due to the constrained supply of cars, Auto manufacturers have not needed to sell cars at deep discounts to make room for the newer models. This has led to similar profits with less cars being sold overall.
With the Auto industry bouncing back 3 years after the pandemic started, and the increasing number of sophisticated sensors and chips in vehicles, cars are beginning to look more like mobile computers than transportation. I believe this will lead to a boom in software jobs in a sector that has traditionally been slept on in the past. Whatever happens I hope that it will lead to more gainful employment, both for the factory workers and the software engineers. I am eager to see how this sector continues to mature and am looking forward to the amazing technological changes that await when I finally retire my current car. Though I hope that isn’t anytime soon.
Call To Action 📣
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