ZF Friedrichshafen is carving out a new role as a global supplier of software solutions and helping integrate different vehicle functions. Dirk Walliser, ZF's senior vice president, corporate research and development, declares that the day of the "software-defined car" has arrived, and in December, ZF launched its Global Software Center to oversee the resources to develop its new role. Walliser, 58, spoke with News Editor Lindsay Chappell about the creation of ZF Middleware, a software architecture that will let automakers centralize vehicle functions and introduce new ones over time. Here are edited excerpts.
Has the day of the software-defined car arrived?
Q: Would you call the shift to become a supplier of vehicle software an innovation of ZF's traditional role?
A: It's not so much new as it is accelerating. We have been dealing already with software. But it's becoming a bigger and bigger demand for us. When you make a required change in a system, you have to go into the old code and change it all the way through. This creates challenges not only for us but also for our customers. So to ease that process and enable its acceleration, we have developed a software package we call ZF Middleware.
What does ZF Middleware do?
It will serve as the translator between all the actuators and transistors and vehicle functions that our customer might want to add in the next several years. Key functions of Middleware are the abstraction of computer hardware from software applications and the communication between these applications.
Isn't vehicle architecture changing very slowly around the industry? Why the sudden need?
We were very surprised by how quickly our customers changed their plans in 2020. Until now, they were taking the approach of saying, "We have all these legacy projects and it's OK for them to run the old way. But let's look at the next vehicle line where we might switch to a hybrid architecture, and then maybe not until the following generation will we look at zone architecture."
But in 2020 they began saying, "Let's go ahead and go to zone controllers right away." They are speeding up their change.
With our Middleware, we have the opportunity to do a step by step approach, as the customer changes.
We have developed it already and we can put it into cars starting in 2024.
Moving deeper into software solutions seems like a significant cultural change for ZF. True?
The biggest challenge is to change the mindset of all our engineers. The natural response is going to be, "The old way worked well — why do we need to change?" We have a tremendous number of projects that we will migrate to the new way. And we're talking about thousands of engineers.
What was the moment that prompted this change?
I can tell you personally, for me, that the moment of change came when I realized that a certain new automaker had not just launched a new electric vehicle but had launched a new iPad on wheels. That was the moment when it struck me that it's not just fancy future talk, but the "software-defined car" is now a reality.
And everybody at work in automotive has to adapt, adjust and embrace that.
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