The Data Center on Wheels Speeds into View: Envisioning the Future of Automotive

The quickening pace of innovation in the automotive sector is gaining speed with the intensity and intrigue of a Fast & Furious film. The industry also is transforming rapidly, impacting next-generation vehicle architectures, driving experiences, partner ecosystems and production manufacturing. Increasingly, tomorrow’s cars and trucks will embody the traits and technologies of powerful computer systems fueled by software, storage, connectivity and computing—essentially performing like a “data center on wheels.”

In the latest Molex survey, we joined forces with Mouser to better understand how the adoption of digital technologies is shaping decisions among stakeholders, including automakers, Tier 1 and 2 autoparts suppliers and contract manufacturers. Much of what we learned echoes our conversations with automotive customers, partners and tech companies focused on growing this vital industry.

Connectivity continues to dominate discussions—whether how best to connect to the cloud to improve driving experiences or ensure safer, more autonomous driving. Interconnectivity holds the key to deploying zonal architectures in electrified vehicles, as well as seamlessly combining critical hardware, software and firmware to enable entirely new and exciting levels of functionality.

The Data Center on Wheels survey took a closer look at the top trends, challenges and expectations shaping decisions and directions across the automotive landscape. More than 500 respondents from 30 countries participated. The largest pool of participants came from the U.S., which colored some of the results. While stateside automakers and their supplier ecosystem are fast followers, China and Germany, respectively, are setting the pace in electrification and technology advancements. As automotive stakeholders around the world jockey for position in the race for dominance, it is clear the entire industry is catapulting forward with speed and agility.

Not a Matter of If, But When

Across the board, survey respondents were bullish about the enormous potential that comes with creating a data center on wheels. As a result, it is no longer an issue of “if” powerful new features will emerge, but rather “when” they become standard in new vehicles. To that end, respondents ranked which features would be standard on new cars and trucks in less than five years. Leading the way were user interfaces via mobile app (50%), streaming movies and TV (47%), remote enablement of new/add-on features (46%), subscription-model pricing for key features (46%), safety and driver assistance (45%), along with over-the-air (OTA) software updates (43%).

There is progress across all these areas, even if some of the priority capabilities are already available. It still takes time to achieve widespread adoption and then integrate those capabilities in new vehicle models. Equally interesting were projections on autonomous driving. While 27% of those polled believe that half of new vehicles sold within 10 years will support Level IV autonomous driving, only 15% believe Level 5 autonomous driving will be available in that timeframe.

Another 18% of the respondents believe it will take up to 30 years for Level V to reach that milestone, especially given the many obstacles that still need to be cleared. We are in good company with this forecast, as last month, VW’s CEO Herbert Diess shared his company’s expectation  that the car industry will see widespread autonomous driving within 25 years. To help reach its goals, VW is pursuing partnerships that increase software self-sufficiency and the addition of new features, such as brand-specific voice assistants.

Opportunities and Obstacles

In sizing up digital technologies that have delivered the biggest impact on vehicle architectures and driving experiences over the past five years, in-car connectivity was named by 45% of those polled, followed by data storage systems (43%) and cloud computing (43%). In the next five years, immersive UX/UI (39%) and out-of-car connectivity (32%), which encompasses 5G and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications, are expected to yield the biggest gains. To accomplish that, we need much more exploration to reduce risks and costs while deciphering new strategies and visions for mobility. At this year’s Computer Electronics Show, Hyundai Motor made a monumental move in sharing its vision of “metamobility.”

Pivotal to Hyundai’s transformation into a smart mobility solutions provider, the company’s vision for future mobility is big, bold and far-sweeping. It entails a world where automobiles and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) will serve as smart devices for accessing virtual spaces that enable users to enjoy various in-car virtual reality experiences. Today, it is unclear whether opportunities outnumber obstacles, or vice versa, but for sure the path forward is littered with technology potholes and roadblocks.

While survey respondents expressed excitement over all opportunities created by data center on wheels capabilities, their optimism was tempered with realities of difficult technology challenges. When asked to cite the top five tech issues most difficult to solve, 54% of the participants identified cybersecurity, followed by software quality (41%), functional safety (36%), connecting vehicles to the cloud (29%), as well as data storage and analysis (28%).

Lingering supply chain issues also were seen as major impediments, along with industry issues, such as consumer fear of autonomous driving, insufficient investment in infrastructure and data privacy, among others.

It’s Gonna Take a Bigger Village

Another overarching theme permeating this latest look at the automotive industry is the realization that widespread collaboration is required to fulfill the promise of a data center on wheels. Of those surveyed, nearly all agree that greater cooperation among OEMs, suppliers and sub-suppliers is critical to success. The demand for new services starts with the dire need for expanded partner ecosystems, especially in all areas of software, encompassing operating systems, AI models, functional safety information, etc. Additionally, existing vendor ecosystems will need interfaces to government entities, access to ongoing software update services, the development of telecom partnerships and the availability of design resources.

The expansion to existing vendor ecosystems will play an important role in creating cross-functional teams with expertise in software, networking, high-performance storage, hyperscale data centers and cloud computing. OEMs must develop these skills inhouse as well as tap into a broad range of partners, including consumer tech companies, such as Apple and Google; cloud providers like Amazon/AWS, Microsoft, etc.; and new suppliers that focus on specific digital technologies for automotive. All the major automotive OEMs are making major investments in new partnerships and software platforms to better address expertise and experiences demanded by the digital age.

For example, Stellantis and Amazon announced a series of multi-year agreements in January to advance in-vehicle experiences for Stellantis’ customers. Together, the companies will create a suite of software-based products and services leveraging Amazon devices, AWS and Amazon Last Mile to integrate with customers’ digital lives and add value over time through OTA software updates.

Additional alignments on production manufacturing also are gaining momentum, thanks to industry alliances, such as ARENA2036, which is focused on how factories must change to produce next-gen vehicle architectures more efficiently and economically. The Stuttgart, Germany-based entity brings titans of industry and science together to facilitate the technology transfer needed to design and manufacture future vehicles.

Collaboration is a central theme of Molex’s latest survey, and it is also the cornerstone of our enduring relationships across the entire automotive ecosystem. Our ability to apply decades of connectivity knowledge in adjacent industries plays an instrumental role as we understand the nuances of working in data centers, telecom, networking and consumer electronics. Molex’s continued efforts in battery management, zonal architectures and wireless/5G are among a long list of technology focuses that enable us to join an extended ecosystem of customers, partners and suppliers in bringing the future of automotive into clearer focus.

Senior Vice President & President, Transportation & Industrial Solutions, Molex