The 5 reasons autonomous vehicles are not smartphones on wheels

The 5 reasons autonomous vehicles are not smartphones on wheels
Eva Rio is product manager at Tuxera, a provider of embedded storage software for consumer electronics, connected & autonomous cars, and enterprise markets.

Software is now one of the main drivers of technological development in the automotive world as cars become much more than a means of transportation as the advance of autonomous driving turns them into complex machines that collect and process large amounts of data.

As this happens, comparisons with other markets and devices such as smartphones start to emerge.

As automakers develop self-driving vehicles, the move is leading to a change in the mindsets of most car companies. Partnerships, acquisitions, and venture investments are commonplace these days. The resulting software-based approach to car development has inevitably led to the use of terms such as “smartphone on wheels” or “rolling data centers.”

This type of thinking is inevitable if automakers want to devise new business opportunities and ways of monetizing transportation beyond simply transportation and differentiate themselves from rivals.

It is estimated that the automotive-related software market will double in value to $469 billion over the next 10 years, research from McKinsey suggests. Roughly 90 percent of vehicle innovations during this period will involve software.

It is no surprise, therefore, that automakers and suppliers want to share in this windfall, and no one wants to be left behind.

But from a software storage perspective, comparing cars and smartphones may be misleading for many reasons.

The auto industry is a tough environment and if companies want to avoid the product delays or software issues that have plagued companies including Tesla and Volkswagen, then, from a storage software perspective, they should remember that certain inherent characteristics of a vehicle’s software design make it very different from a smartphone for the following reasons.


Everyone has experienced a lag in playing back video on a smartphone, or an app that freezes for no apparent reason on their device.

There is no room for error with a vehicle. Real-time responses are essential, particularly in autonomous driving.

Several factors play a role in software performance such as the file size, the way the device is partitioned, the file system implementations themselves, and contrary to popular belief, fragmentation.

Automotive systems must handle multiple data streams such as video from dash cams, sensor data, GPS data, and log files that are all being written at the same time. This type of heavy-write workload fragments the storage to a great degree, quickly degrading performance.

It is essential therefore that automakers look for solutions that prevent fragmentation and maintain sustained and consistent performance for long periods of time under intense operations.

Storage capacity

While most flagship smartphones average an internal storage capacity of 256 GB data, storage requirements for cars with a Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy raise that figure to up to 5 TB.

Cameras, radar, sensors, infotainment, and applications from added connectivity to the vehicle, are just some of the drivers behind this increase in storage.


Automotive components must withstand operating temperatures of -40 to 125 Celsius, whereas consumer electronic devices should work in a range of 0 to 70 C.

Temperature greatly impacts a computer drive’s endurance and data retention. SSD drives store data in oxide layers that are affected by temperature. The hotter the temperature, the higher the risk of errors.

Similarly, extreme cold temperatures cause their own performance issues. The SSD must be able to correct and handle temperature-induced errors. Automotive grade SSDs implement additional error correction techniques to prevent this from happening and ensure the integrity of the data.

However, there is a trade-off as this mean more program and erase operations, which in turn shortens the life of the software drives.

Replacement of parts

While consumers replace their smartphones every two to three years, they expect their vehicles to last at least 10 years.

As such, the Automotive Electronics Council (AEC) assumes a product target lifetime of 15 years in their specifications for non-volatile memory units for use in automotive environments.

To achieve such a long operating lifetime, flash media software and file systems play a critical role that is often overlooked.

But the software often suffers from write amplification, an issue that is caused by the need to erase data before it can be rewritten, which can lead in turn to the memory being worn out faster than it should be. Theoretically, this could lead to vehicle recalls down the road and needs to be addressed by automakers.

Data processing

Consumer electronic devices have constraints on their capabilities that can be enhanced through mobile cloud services. This is achieved by offloading data processing and data storage outside the device.

In autonomous vehicles, however, that concept has been shelved in favor of in-vehicle processing and as a result, data from sensors will account for approximately 90 percent of the data onboard a vehicle.

This means vehicle systems must be up to the task and equipped with file systems and storage management tools that make full use of its hardware capabilities while optimizing CPU consumption.

In short, comparing developments in the auto industry to smartphones is misleading as cars and their technologies are full of peculiarities not seen in other devices.

Storage software is one of those aspects that can be easily overlooked but is critical for the safety, performance, and user experience of a vehicle.

What is clear is that the automotive industry is experiencing a revolution, the likes of which has not been seen since the birth of the car more than a century ago.

Success awaits automakers and suppliers that can seize these new opportunities, while understanding they present very different challenges.


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