Every time I hear someone boast about how many million lines of code are being used to run a regular or self-driving car, I cringe. It tells me that the person either doesn't know much about computers or thinks I don't know enough about software and coding to realize what a ridiculous statement that is.
It's like boasting about how much junk you have in your house, assuming people will think you are rich. Just like there's no correlation between how much stuff is in your house and how much money you have, there is little correlation between how many lines of code are in something vs. how capable and sophisticated a system is. Good software systems are like houses — they can be well-designed from the ground up or patchworked together with additions that seem out of place and hallways that go nowhere.
Unfortunately, the auto industry is kind of stuck in a situation where there is no one simple, sophisticated foundation for the entire industry to use as it transitions into computer-powered vehicles. The industry needs something like the Internet, which is freely accessible and has its own set of standards and language that anyone can access.
Here's an analogy that might explain why that's important: Every time a web developer wants to put a button on a Web page that lets users email a company, that web developer only needs to know how to write the code that puts the button on the page. She doesn't need to explain to the computer system what email is, how it operates, how an email should look, how it gets to its destination. She just needs to know that "mailto:EMAILADDRESS" is the code that lets someone click and send an email. That's because somewhere along the line, someone wrote a program that simplified these processes. Today's web developer is simply using that foundation to build their creations on.
Moving into the world of self-driving cars, the auto industry needs something like a standard platform. At CES this week, some automakers were talking about open platforms because they know they need to share their foundations in order for geeky tech types to come in and build masterpieces on top of them. Toyota said the foundation for its e-Palette delivery truck system will be open. Ford went a step further and said it is developing a connected-car open-source platform, and it is inviting other automakers to use that platform as well.
That could, in theory, make Ford something like Apple, running its own version of the iTunes store, but for self-driving cars. It could be something that makes Ford a lot of money. And it could also be the thing that speeds up connected-car and self-driving car development.
The idea of having a common language and common building blocks is a sound one. But only time will tell if other automakers are willing to concede that platform-building to Ford. If the industry wants to operate a little more like Silicon Valley, buying into this platform would be one way to do that. But old habits die hard, and ultimately, this is a competitive landscape with billions of dollars at stake.
— Sharon Silke Carty