TOKYO -- Automotive technology is speeding ever forward, as seen in the growing buzz over self-driving and "connected" cars and their potential to transform the driving experience. One of the latest battlefields in the race to create a superior car is automotive operating systems, with developers competing to create basic software for vehicles much in the way that they vied for supremacy in personal computers and smartphones.
In Japan, the key players on the automotive OS front are not carmakers but software developers, including SCSK and Fuji Soft. One of the leading names in the field is Hiroaki Takada, a professor at Nagoya University and expert on automotive onboard software.
Last autumn, he set up a company -- Automotive Platform Technology Japan -- on his campus to develop a platform for operating automotive control systems. He and a team of young engineers have been working together there to develop a new OS.
With conventional automotive systems, every component, including the engine, brakes, motor and power steering mechanism, is controlled by a separate microcontroller installed with a program written specifically for that particular function.
But as vehicles grow more sophisticated, "developing software for them has become a bigger, more complex job," Takada said.
Now, programmers have to write over 10 million lines of code when a new car is developed, gobbling up a large chunk of an automaker's resources.
That burden will only grow with the advent of artificial intelligence-equipped cars that use data collected from sensors. Programmers will have to write software capable of even more complex functions.
There's an app for that
What Takada's team is doing is creating a platform for automobiles much in the way that the iOS and Android OS platforms underpin Apple iPhone and Google Android smartphones. Creating apps for such a platform to control the engine, brakes and other automotive components will considerably ease the development burden by obviating the need to churn out huge amounts of code. It will also make it easier to add new functions.
Takada's project has attracted the interest of companies that develop automotive-control software, including Fuji Soft, Canon Software, Ryoden and Sunny Giken. All of these companies have agreed to invest in APTJ.
Japan is playing a game of catch-up with Europe in this field. European software developers have already introduced various operating systems that comply with AUTOSAR (AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture), an international standard for automotive operating systems that was created in 2003 under the lead of such German players as Volkswagen, Daimler, Robert Bosch and Continental. Volkswagen and some of its counterparts in the region have already introduced such OSs.
The first Japanese company to develop an AUTOSAR-compliant OS was system developer SCSK, with a platform called QINeS-BSW.
"One company has already decided use our system, and we're negotiating with a number of major autoparts makers," said SCSK senior executive officer Shoichi Kondo.
The company is also working with carmakers to develop programs for automotive electronic control units.
"We're an IT company with experience in developing large-scale systems, so we're taking advantage of such know-how in developing automotive systems," Kondo said.
In May, autoparts maker Denso teamed up with eSol and NEC Communication Systems to create Aubass, a joint venture that develops automotive OSs. The new company, which launched with a staff of about 100, aims to release a beta version of its OS in early 2017 and release a full-scale version in 2019.
"We're in the phase where industry players are competing against each other and honing their technology," said Aubass President Shoji Izumi, who previously worked for Denso. "We're willing to use whatever we think is great even if it's created by other companies, as long as we can develop software that is easy to use and right for the job."
Japanese software developers are scrambling to complete their OSs for their client parts makers, as European automakers are already requiring their suppliers to use AUTOSAR-compliant OSs to go with their products.
Japanese autoparts typically come with software written specifically for them, so the introduction of AUTOSAR has presented a challenge for software developers. The shift has drastically changed the way they create software, not least of all by forcing them to spend a significant amount of time gathering information on the latest updates to the standard, according to a source at a Japanese automotive software developer. The source said the company had "so much trouble initially."
But with the AUTOSTAR standard set to be further expanded to set specifications for self-driving and advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) technology, Japanese developers will have to further adapt.
"Japan's auto industry has traditionally had a deep-rooted in-house production culture, but the efforts by Japanese software developers will lead to wider use of automotive OSs," said an official of Vector Japan, the Japanese arm of German software developer Vector Informatik.
Interest in the latest developments in automotive software technology is soaring. Before Google -- a leader in self-driving technology -- held a July 13 press event in Tokyo to introduce a new technology called Android Auto, the company's Japanese unit was flooded with calls asking whether it was using the occasion to announce new self-driving-related software. The host had to repeatedly deny the rumors during the event. Ultimately, the new technology proved to be software that connects smartphones with onboard devices and enables the use of speech-driven commands.
Now that software development has come to play a pivotal role in automotive technology, the nature of competition in the industry is becoming similar to that in the IT and electronics industries, according to Aubass President Izumi.
For some in Japan, that stirs the bitter memory of how domestic players were beaten by overseas rivals in mobile phone technology. Japanese electronics makers were confident they would continue to dominate in mobile phones. But when smartphones swept the market, they quickly lost ground.
That chapter in history is certainly fresh on the mind of APTJ Chairman Takada.
"Japan may fall behind the global leaders in the development race for automotive systems unless we develop our own OSs," Takada said.