The quest to develop successful autonomous car software

How will hardware and software work together in autonomous cars? The automotive industry is trying to answer that very question, and they’re relying on companies with experience in electronic design automation to make this autonomous car software happen.

One of those companies that can help is a recent Siemens PLM Software acquisition, Mentor Graphics. I spoke with Andrew Macleod, the current director of automotive marketing at Mentor, to learn more about how the company sees the roles hardware and software could play in autonomous cars.

Macleod is responsible for the automotive brand architecture at Mentor Graphics, and his job is to bring Mentor’s products to the market in a way that makes the most sense for customers. But his background is actually in hardware. He previously worked in corporate marketing in the Chinese automotive market for the now-merged companies Freescale and NXP, as well as product management marketing for semi-conductors at Freescale Semiconductor, which spun off from Motorola. He joined Mentor because he liked the company’s vision for the future and he was intrigued by the combination of hardware and software the company has been putting together.

When I spoke with Macleod, I wanted to talk with him about how the auto industry is moving toward an automated world and the implications of that move in how autonomous car software will be developed. We started our conversation by discussing what he sees as the biggest challenges the auto industry faces as automation expands.

EDWARD BERNARDON: You’ve dabbled in software, in hardware, in markets all over the world, including Asia and the fast growing markets in China. And of course, you are certainly aware of all the big changes that are happening as we move toward all-electric, autonomous cars.

If you were to take a step back and look at this in general, what do you think are the greatest challenges the automotive industry faces as we move toward this future, automated-car world?

ANDREW MACLEOD: I think there’s several. Automotive is really the darling of the tech industry today and getting lots of coveted and mainstream technology press, and most of that innovation is driven by electronics. The stuff you were talking about – autonomous driving, electric vehicles, connected car – all driven by electronics hardware and software systems.

I think the first thing is the speed of change for the whole supply chain, and I think that one of the catalysts for this change that we are seeing in the supply chain is the whole concept of cars moving from a model of being owned – we go, we buy a car, we keep it for seven years – to this concept of mobility, which is turning the car into something that looks more like a mobile data center.

Then we have, for example, McKinsey got this estimate of $1.5 trillion incremental revenue in automotive by 2030, and that’s not from selling cars, that’s from selling mobility services like imagine these robo-taxis and selling data services and apps and selling new features. 

An example that I’ve seen recently would be Tesla selling their autopilot. For a few thousand dollars you can have this advanced driver assist stuff streamed into your car overnight over Wi-Fi. We have that amount of new opportunity, which is bringing a ton of new entrants into the industry, so people at Google and Apple and IBM and even Facebook and so on are all wanting to get into automotive to see what business opportunities they can take advantage of with this concept of new mobility.

We contrast that between the supply chain traditionally – there’s a car maker asking for some new feature, whether they want some kind of infotainment or GPS or something added on with eco – send that to a Tier 1. They’ll work with a Tier 2, a semiconductor company perhaps, develop the box, send it back to the car maker and then they would integrate it into the network. There you’ve got this very fragmented supply chain with some of these bigger players I was talking about.

You’ve also got 300 electric vehicle manufacturers globally, and a lot of those are coming out of China. You’ve also got a zillion startups coming out of Silicon Valley that all have some level of expertise in autonomous drive algorithms, or something to do with connectivity and electrification.

The supply chain is really fragmented now, and I think there are going to be winners and losers for sure. I mean, if we move towards fully autonomous cars, the guy that builds steering wheels is eventually going to go out of business, right? And the person that’s making mirrors, they get replaced by cameras and so on.

We can see that the whole industry is changing very quickly: the supply chain is changing, the IP development and ownership is changing. I think the challenge of some of the established players is how do you keep up, and how do you accelerate, and how do you invest in these areas to make sure that you can capitalize on the new opportunity?

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EDWARD BERNARDON: It’s interesting to think of the development chain. You have large OEM R&D groups that are working on autonomous cars. Then you have dozens possibly hundreds of startups popping up all over the world that are innovating on their own. The large companies have resources; the small startups are fast on their feet and can develop quickly.

Where do you think the innovation is really going to occur? The startups? The OEMs? Both? How are the OEMs and these startups going to work together? How do you see all this evolving?

ANDREW MACLEOD: That’s a great question, Ed. I think that innovation is going to come from, how do we take all of this menu of technology that’s out there, and put it together in a way that’s compelling and somehow future proofed? Because frankly, everybody that’s got something that’s IP [intellectual property] in automotive wants to make their IP the center of the system.

So if you are selling cameras, you want to make that the center of the world for autonomous driving. If you are selling LIDAR, you want to make that the center of the world.

How do you optimize a system that is the best way of doing something? Taking the correct technologies, working with all these different suppliers to make sure that it’s future proofed and the right roadmap, and then engineer it together – and by engineer it together, I mean put the hardware and the software together – make it automotive grade, which is functionally safe and secure.

Because a lot of these autonomous cars and things that you see out here are basically R&D platforms on wheels. The challenge is going to be: How do you take that and “productionize” it? 

Having $80,000 worth of stuff in a Google car is fine, and is very impressive as a project. But you want to put something like that on a Ford Focus platform, or Hyundai Elantra, or something like that that’s for the mass market – you can’t add on thousands of dollars of extra costs. That will be the challenge.

I think two things. Optimizing system design and manufacturability, so that everybody can make money out of this. Autonomous is a great example – moving it from R&D to production so that we can put all of that technology across the fleet. We have all of this innovation, all of these pockets of innovation like you said, and I think that is going to lead to innovation in design and development to make that stuff feasible to put on the road.

This concludes part one of my conversation about autonomous cars and autonomous car software with Andrew Macleod. In part two, we discuss where he thinks the greatest need for development is today and how systems of systems comes into play.

About the author
Edward Bernardon is vice president of strategic automotive initiatives for the Specialized Engineering Software business segment of Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of the Siemens Industry Automation Division. Bernardon joined the company when Siemens acquired Vistagy, Inc. in December, 2011. During his 17 year tenure with Vistagy, Bernardon assumed the roles of vice president of sales, and later business development for all specialized engineering software products. Prior to Vistagy, Bernardon directed the Automation and Design Technology Group at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, formerly the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed new manufacturing processes, automated equipment and complementary design software tools. Bernardon received an engineering degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University, and later received an M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Butler University. He also holds numerous patents in the area of automated manufacturing systems, robotics and laser technologies.

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