Electric vehicles

GM’s vision for computerized cars

Padma Sundaram, head of software-defined vehicle operations and product assurance, on the future of connected vehicles.
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· 5 min read

It may not be long before updating most cars looks more like a smartphone update than a trip to the auto shop.

Automaker executives are betting on software as an opportunity to grow revenue and expand margins through subscription models. More than 60% of US drivers were in connected vehicles in 2021, according to estimates from Insider Intelligence. That number could rise to more than 70% by 2025. At GM, capturing this new business is the goal of the company’s Ultifi platform, which will enable cloud-based, over-the-air vehicle updates. GM plans to roll out Ultifi for some vehicles in its portfolio in 2023.

Padma Sundaram has been working on various GM projects for the last 24 years, including the company’s first long-range EV more than a decade ago and autonomous-driving tech at Cruise.

“Software is not new in automotive. There’s a lot of software. Today, if you take an advanced vehicle, there is already about 150 million lines of code,” she told Emerging Tech Brew, adding later that the figure could double to 300 million as features and capabilities become more complex.

Now the director of software-defined vehicle operations and product assurance, she leads a team that brings the lessons of AV to software for other cars. We spoke with Sundaram about the future of connected vehicles and the challenges ahead as the auto industry enters the cloud.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How could software-defined vehicles change the experience for drivers five to 10 years down the road?

This kind of connectivity with the cloud enables us to monitor vehicles all the time. So if there are problems…We can, through our digital feedback loop, immediately detect that and be able to self-heal it. In the past, this had to be reported, and you had to go through the whole process of going to the dealer or waiting for a fix. Whereas now, it can probably be very seamless. Depending upon the issue, it can even be done within a couple of hours and you won’t even know. And it can be done in your driveway.

Additionally, we can continue to enhance the digital experience of the user with the vehicle so the vehicle is more than just a mobility device…For example, let’s say you get in the car, and you like your seat to be programmed in a certain way, your temperature to be programmed…You want certain things enabled, certain features enabled…As soon as you come in with your cell phone or something and it's able to identify that it’s you, basically everything becomes customized. And it automates that. And then you can take it from one GM car to another car as well.

Is there a possibility that some cars can’t be updated to the latest software?

Absolutely, it can happen if you don't pay attention to it. That's why in the operation space, which is my department, essentially we only update if the car is eligible for it…Every car is a digital device in our database, and we know what it has and what it's capable of. So we only add more content if that hardware and software combination can take that new update and upgrade. We're not going to load something [so that] the car becomes useless. That’s not going to happen. Even today's upgrades that are happening through OnStar—even at a limited scale—even those are done very cautiously based on the configuration of the vehicle.

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How is GM addressing cybersecurity concerns?

That is for us a very critical criteria. As part of engineering, there are certain things that we consider upfront; safety and security are the key pieces. The privacy piece is also equally important. So safety and security—we build it directly into the hardware, [from the] ground up. As we are building this, our platform, the Ultifi platform, and all the devices that connect to the cloud, and the devices that connect to the user devices in the vehicle, are all having inbuilt security protection. And these security protections are regularly being monitored.

In addition to that, we continuously evaluate what kind of software security patches are needed.

GM executives have said that software is an untapped source of revenue growth. What makes it such a promising opportunity, and how would a subscription model change how drivers interact with their vehicles?

I think it’ll be very exciting for the users, just based on the Super Cruise experience. This is a hands-free driving technology that is available today. And this feature—people are so excited about it. It requires up-to-date maps. So users who are using this see the need to have an updatable map [that is] regularly updated so they can use this feature more. We know from that data [who needs] this update for maps. And so if they are subscribed, they’re able to download these maps and keep this feature up-to-date. So these kinds of features provide users with a lot of comfort, a lot of driving benefits that allow them to decide if they want to have a continuous update and upgrade of these features. And so that allows us to decide which features are eligible for—suitable for—subscription models.

What about drivers who aren’t interested in a subscription?

If it is offered as a subscription, then [drivers] can definitely opt out, just like your cell phone. There are certain things that you definitely want in your cell phone. You want the cell phone to be connected. Similarly, let’s say you have an electric vehicle; you want it to be connected so that it can help you find the nearest charging station. So there are certain things, from a connectivity standpoint, users will want. And we know that they want it because we have a lot of data that suggests that. But let’s say there’s something else, a feature that’s not useful for the driver; they can opt out of it. We’re not going to force anybody to subscribe.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.