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Your car has more software than you think. And the manufacturer has the codes

A fundamental shift is being witnessed in the industry where software rather than hardware will determine the future.

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Some of the vehicles that I have been driving of late feel like spaceships, particularly at night with their massive screens and lighting strips rotating through 32,000 colours in some cases. All this makes the interior of the car feel like a strange space, completely removed from the streets of Delhi. Bizarre to be driving such a vehicle on a road where bovines habitually cross the road nary a care in the world. The dichotomy can sometimes be befuddling, no matter how often you experience it.

But this is not just in the Audis, BMWs or Mercedes-Benz of the world. The features that can transform your car into the interior of a nightclub are present even in the Hyundais and the Kias. Coupled with branded audio systems, on which you can play your favourite tracks with a sound fidelity unimaginable to the 18-year-old me. I remember the craptastic sound of the no-brand audio system on my mother’s Maruti 800 that I used to ‘borrow’. At times, spending hours trying to retrieve cassette tapes tangled in the innards of the said audio system—also called the head. Today, it just feels amazing.

That Maruti 800 from 1995 was a different beast altogether, because what you bought at the showroom is how the car remained for life. Yes, you could update it with an audio system and in case you got the version without the built-in air-conditioner, an aftermarket solution could always be found.

But it is different nowadays.


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One car, many software

Not just because you are surrounded by massive screens and lights and eight-speaker surround sound systems, but also because cars are increasingly becoming items of software. And just like your smartphone, your car, if you have bought one in the past couple of years, can be updated over the air. Not just the navigation and infotainment system. On some vehicles, you can update engine performance or battery and motor performance on electrics as well. A manufacturer could update handling settings remotely and even unlock features on the vehicles that you can pay extra for.

And that is it, from a product that was once set in stone the second it left the assembly line, a car can today be modified and have features unlocked.

A car today is, at a level, very similar to a machine in the motorsports game Forza. And a couple of examples come to mind. A few months ago, BMW said that consumers will have to pay extra to ‘unlock’ the heated seats function on the cars that have this feature. There was a massive backlash to this. But now, even Mercedes-Benz is going to charge extra for ‘unlocking’ a higher rate of acceleration on their EV offerings. Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz are taking cues from Tesla, which has gotten a significant number of their buyers to subscribe to their fully autonomous driving mode.

Though these examples are from the US, a fundamental shift is being witnessed in the industry in many markets, where software rather than hardware will determine the future. And while I am not an engineer, I know that there is a world of difference between mechanical and electrical engineering, and now with electric vehicles, electro-chemical engineering as well. The advancements and improvements made to cars will increasingly not happen in physical product release cycles but through software updates. For example, the latest release of Apple’s iOS operating system to iOS16 transformed the user experience (UX) of the device, the same might happen soon with cars.

So the incredible Mercedes-Benz EQS AMG I drove recently might get a performance update over the air or even allow me to unlock a special mode with better performance if I pay money.

Earlier, enthusiasts would take their cars to a modification shop where they could change the suspension, exhausts and even parts of the engine or the full engine and transmission. Now, they would need to take their car to a hacker, one who understood a little bit of mechanical engineering as well.


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The software power

Back in the day, a manufacturer could not stop you from making modifications to your car. Although in India, you need prior permission to do so, including changing the paint on your car, according to a Supreme Court judgment. However, there are downsides to such modifications/upgrades. A smartphone that you get repaired from an unauthorised shop might not work well, or in the case of Apple in the past when the phone could even be disabled remotely. Can a car manufacturer do that? Could a manufacturer ‘kill’ your car if you modify it illegally, citing public safety? All those software agreements you (don’t) read while installing give the developers the right to do just that. And as cars increasingly become software dependent, much of it developed in Bengaluru and Hyderabad, who knows what could happen.

If you use Google Maps on Apple Carplay, it is not just the vehicle manufacturer who has your data — Cupertino (Apple) and Mountain View (Google) have your driving data as well. There are some significant issues here that the industry and those associated with the industry, including myself, have not really addressed and actually glossed over. But this $3 trillion globalised sector is undergoing massive change, and issues surrounding all this will need to be addressed — from data security to subscription revenues. As cars become consumer electronics goods, maybe it is time for a change in the way we review and even write policy for vehicles. Watch this space for more articles around these issues.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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