Android is doing a pretty good job of colonizing the in-car infotainment ecosystem. At first, Google’s operating system started showing up in new vehicles as custom installations, but more recently the company developed Android Automotive, which you can find in new cars from General Motors, Polestar, Volvo, Honda, and soon, both BMW and Volkswagen Group.
A perennial question that has accompanied the spread of Android Automotive has been the question of support. A car has a much longer expected service life than a smartphone, especially an Android smartphone, and with infotainment systems so integral to a car’s operations now, how long can we reasonably expect those infotainment systems to be supported?
So far, a bit more than seven years is the longest any Android phone has received support, before unsupported chips finally called time on the Fairphone. I’m not sure anyone would be OK with having their car sent to the scrap heap after just seven years, however.
I got the chance to put this question to Dirk Hilgenberg, CEO of CARIAD, Volkswagen Group’s software division: Given the much longer service life of a car compared to a smartphone, how does VW plan to keep those cars patched and safe 10 or 15 years from now?
“We actually have a contract with the brands, which took a while to negotiate, but lifetime support was utterly important,” Hilgenberg told me.
The follow-up was obvious: How long is “lifetime”? “Fifteen years after service, and an extra option for brands who would like to have it even longer; you know, we have to guarantee updatability on all legal aspects,” he said.
“So that’s why we are, as you can imagine, very cautious with branches of releases because every branch we need to maintain over this long time. So when you have end of operation and EOP [end of production] and it’s 15 years longer, we still have to maintain that; plus, some brands actually said ‘because my vehicle is a unicorn, it’s something that people want even more, they only occasionally drive it but they want to be safe,’” Hilgenberg told me.
(The unicorn reference should make sense in the context of VW Group owning Bugatti, Lamborghini, and Porsche, whose cars are often collected and can be on the road for many decades.)
In those cases, CARIAD would provide continued support, Hilgenberg said. “Especially as cybersecurity, all the legal things are concerned, you see that already. Now we do upgrades and releases, whether it’s in China, whether it’s in the US, whether it’s in Europe, we take very cautious steps. Security and safety has, in the Volkswagen group, you know, the utmost importance, and we see it actually as an opportunity to differentiate,” he said.
There is cause for optimism
At this point, our more cynical readers are probably firing up the comment section to tell us just how little they believe these claims. But there’s reason to give Hilgenberg the benefit of the doubt, according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights.
“New E/E architectures are moving away from the old distributed arrangement with dozens of ECUs powered by low-powered and cheap microcontrollers to arrangements with a few domain controllers powered by much more powerful SoCs. These are coming with new software platforms that abstract the applications away from the hardware. Instead, these platforms (like GM’s Ultifi and MB.OS) provide APIs that applications talk to, read sensors, and send commands to actuators,” Abuelsamid told Ars.
“This decouples the applications from the underlying hardware. Even if CARIAD (or any other OEM) opts to use something like Android Automotive or QNX for infotainment, it’s going to run in a container at the application layer above the abstraction layer. The computing power in these new E/E architectures should be able to support updates to those containerized OSes for much longer than a typical phone and certainly longer than in the past,” Abuelsamid explained.
However, there’s no guarantee that OEMs can make the business model work for this long-term support.
“They are clearly counting on generating a lot of new recurring revenue streams based on selling subscriptions to features or selling new features as OTA updates, but so far no one has actually proven there is a willingness among consumers to pay for that. Tesla gives that stuff to customers for free; with subscription fatigue being a real thing, I’m not sure how many car owners will pay up, especially if there isn’t a corresponding decrease in the upfront price of the car. This is likely to be an even bigger issue in the used car market, which accounts for three to four times the number of annual sales as new cars,” Abuelsamid told me.