From Car To Device: How Software Is Changing Vehicle Ownership

For much of the last century, the ownership, loving care, and maintenance of an aged and decrepit automobile has been a rite of passage among the mechanically inclined. Sure, the battle against rust and worn-out parts may eventually be lost, but through that bond between hacker and machine are the formative experiences of motoring forged. In middle-age we wouldn’t think of setting off across the continent on a wing and a prayer in a decades-old vehicle, but somehow in our twenties we managed it. The Drive have a piece that explores how technological shifts in motor vehicle design  are changing our relationship with cars such that what we’ve just described may become a thing of the past. Titled “The Era of ‘the Car You Own Forever’ Is Coming to an End“, it’s well worth a read.

At the crux of their argument is that carmakers are moving from a model in which they produce motor vehicles that are simply machines, into one where the vehicles are more like receptacles for their software. In much the same way as a smartphone is obsolete not necessarily through its hardware becoming useless but through its software becoming unmaintained, so will the cars of the future. Behind this is a commercial shift as the manufacturers chase profits and shareholder valuations, and a legal change in the relationship between customer and manufacturer that moves from ownership of a machine into being subject to the terms of a software license.

This last should be particularly concerning to all of us, after all if we’re expected to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a car it’s not unreasonable to expect that it will continue to serve us at our convenience rather than at that of its manufacturer.

If you’re a long-time Hackaday reader, you may remember that we’ve touched on this topic before.

Header image: Carolyn Williams, CC BY 2.0.

48 thoughts on “From Car To Device: How Software Is Changing Vehicle Ownership

  1. Move towards software-defined cars, bicycles, scooters etc. will have a net positive impact I believe. For example, in case of theft, a car that requires Internet connectivity to start and operate can be remotely disabled and rendered useless for would be thieves. It won’t even be useful as parts because those parts will be refused in any other vehicle (their cryptographic signatures will be rendered invalid). It all can be done with modern cryptography, even in microcontrollers.

    Same thing about service. Gone will be the days when unauthorized mechanic cheaps out and install fake parts made in China while billing you for something that’s supposed to be Mazda OEM part made in Japan. It can increase roadworthiness and traffic safety both for automobile drivers and for cyclists.

    1. It’s only a “net positive” if you believe that giving the manufacturer ongoing control over your vehicle and its disposition, (and likely having services and capabilities withdrawn from you on a whim), is a net positive. I’m pretty sure that for the overwhelming majority of Hackaday readers, not having true ownership of and control over the car they paid for is very much NOT a positive thing. In fact, it’s something that most of us here will fight against, tooth and nail.

      Also, NONE of the positive aspects you mentioned requires the manufacturer to be able to de-feature or brick your car at will. All of them can be obtained while still leaving control in the hands of the owner. The manufacturers do not have OUR best interests in mind – they really don’t care about that in the least. They want control over the cars because they want control over every last penny they can steal while they pretend that it’s all being done for our benefit. In my opinion anyone who believes otherwise is very, very naive.

      1. I’m with you. This is about greed, control, and freedom. They can take this “You’ll own nothing and be happy” BS and shove it. I want to own things. I want to fix (or modifying) them myself if I choose. And I certainly don’t want a car that someone can take control of remotely at their whim.

    2. “For example, in case of theft, a car that requires Internet connectivity to start and operate can be remotely disabled and rendered useless for would be thieves.”

      People literally saw off the catalytic converter on cars because the precious metals inside are worth the risk to the person stealing.

      The idea that someone wouldn’t steal a car because some car manufacturer tried to block it with software is honestly hilarious. Car manufacturers are terrible at software. Moving to “software defined vehicles” should scare the crap out of everyone.

      Seriously, who out there has looked at *any* modern car and been like “wow, these guys sure know how to write software!”

      1. > Seriously, who out there has looked at *any* modern car and been like “wow, these guys sure know how to write software!”

        The guys that write mission-critical software (braking systems) and moderately-critical software (engine control & emissions – excepting VW) seem to write good code (not that you ever see it), but those that write code for infotainment/navigation/etc seem to be straight out of high school.

        1. Not true. Safety-critical code is also written by clueless undergrads, you just don’t see it. I’ve been a software architect working for that big automotive company starting with F. They outsourced firmware development to various companies in Poland, IIRC one of them was located in Krakow. Those companies further outsourced their work to local software houses. Result was that ECU code was being developed by unqualified and underpaid 21 year old chaps who graduated from local university just 6 months before. Code quality was a joke, unit testing was skipped because otherwise deadlines wouldn’t be met (seriously!). Issues reported by static analysis tools were “resolved” by marking problematic places as exceptions with empty explaination/comment. Internal function names, variables and comments were all written in Polish. In the end project was further outsourced to India (sic!) so that faulty code written by Poles could be fixed and the module was put in production with 1 year delay. Little guys at the bottom were sacked for the delays they caused while management got promoted for “dealing with human resource issues” and making the decision about moving development to India. Fortunately I quit this madhouse in early 2020 but it still makes me shiver how shoddy most of embedded devices around us are actually written.

        2. “The guys that write mission-critical software (braking systems) and moderately-critical software (engine control & emissions – excepting VW) seem to write good code”

          No, it’s just that it’s easier to test them. It’s like, imagine if you used an microcontroller to implement a button that turns on a light. The code could be absolutely terrible and break horribly if someone tried to switch which pins it was on or something. But you’d know immediately, because it just wouldn’t work.

          Plus, of course, their “failure” modes are pretty much always “panic and throw a check engine light” at which point the car manufacturer is like “not my fault, the car told you it was broken.”

          You can get away with crap software in “mission-critical” stuff pretty easily because you just make sure it only ever gets sane inputs. You can’t do that with software that runs UIs (because humans and other computers aren’t sane), which is why that stuff *exposes* poor software practices.

    3. With all do respect to you signao, I’d like to mention, that’s fine and dandy if you got 20+ grand to buy a new car like we d cell phones. Talking about fake parts just buy a whole new car instead. I’m all for tech in cars, I love the Bluetooth connect very much but I dont want them to buy me with planned obsolescence. there is no way on earth I can afford a new car every 10 years. Just my opinion.

    4. Simple question:
      Do you support Microsoft’s implementation of TPM modules and UEFI implementation within Windows 11?

      Because that is where our cars are headed.

  2. This is a certain irony to this new auto business model and the big time push to EV vehicles. Yes, EV vehicles do not pollute when they are running… but what about the environmental impact when they can not longer be maintained (current software/hardware updates cannot be used with older models) and are “thrown away” ? I guess to some environmental concerns are limited to when they are in their backyard and this group could care less when it is someone else’s issue. Look at cell phones where there is limited local recycling and are sent off to Countries without environmental or worker laws… As I said earlier… those who are pushing for EV are not considering the whole picture or the EV life cycle.

      1. Not at all. Many Govs are trying to outlaw the use of old cars… this is simply a fact and to focus, push, endorse EV’s. EVs have their place and I have no problems with them except that various groups assume that they are 100% environmentally friendly. They are not… nor are ICE autos. Secondly, given the vast numbers of ICE autos out there, what would be the plan to recycle all of these autos? Funny enough no one is talking about this. Do you not think that instead of buying a new vehicle (EV or ICE) every 4-5 years and disposing of it in some manner, that it would be far more environmentally to keep this vehicle for much longer? Sadly, there is another motivation at play here which is to keep the consumer on the financial hook… Gov mandated consumerism… which is exactly one of the main factors which is contributing to our environmental issues. This is not a EV vs ICE debate, but simply a prgamatic view to look at all of these details that few wish to do.

      2. Burying your head in the sand about the battery lifespan and cost issue doesn’t make it FUD. When the single most expensive component of the car has the shortest technical lifespan, they do become disposable. Once that paradigm shift happens, the rest of the car gets optimized to be equally disposable.

        Cellphones with non-replaceable batteries are a perfect example. Nobody even wants to replace the battery anymore because they’ve already committed to buying another one every 2-4 years. As a result, the mechanical quality of the phones went down so much that even if the software didn’t go obsolete, even if you could replace the battery, four times out of five you’d still buy a new one anyways.

        1. That explains why certain German car manufactures tell you to never change the fluid in their slush boxes, while ZF (the trans maker) says ‘every 100,000km, just like every auto trans.

          The truth is it’s good advice. If the transmission on a 10 year old benz fails, it’s totaled. If it doesn’t the chump/owner might be tempted to maintain it, which IS futile.

  3. SaaS SUCKS! With the goal of reducing our carbon footprint, this certainly isnt the right direction to lead us to a better future! So car hacking will soon be a thing. People will turn to “specialists” who will enable/disable whatever the hell they wish. And some may just build their own cars in the future. Whoever conceived the concept should be deported! From Earth!

    1. Agreed… if there was a competition for “What could we do to get people to keep the oldest, gross polluter, IC engine cars on the road for as long as possible?” this would probably win first prize with and an honorary doctorate to University of Riyadh or Texas A&M or somewhere oily.

  4. There is also the aspect of car components depending on services hosted by the manufacture – services that were probably poorly designed and will EOL as soon as they legally can.

    I recently bought a used 2018 Nissan, and I want to use Android Auto with it, but you can only install apps on the infotainment system with approval from Nissan, but my vehicle is registered to the previous owner in Nissan USA’s infotainment database, so far I’ve had zero luck persuading them I’m the legitimate owner – and Nissan seems to have zero interest in honoring the process for updating the owner… This is big reason to not buy a Nissan (new or used)….

    We can hope/fight for Right to Repair type legislation that protects out vehicles from being decommissioned as a result of a manufacture shutting down services or EOLing software.

      1. I can, and I probably will go that route. But you miss the point, I bought that car, I own it outright, and because of the manufacture’s poor implementation and lack commitment to supporting vehicles sold used, I can’t use a significant feature of the vehicle. Also an after market head unit is going to run me ~$1000 because it’s so integrated into the car (I can’t just a buy any head unit).

        Why should I have to put up with that? Why is it you think I should be forced to pay $1000 for a new head unit when there is perfectly good one in the vehicle already?

        Above you’re complaining about short EV battery lifespans, and here you seem to be advocating for ditching fully functioning hardware so that manufactures can avoid accountability for bad decisions…..

        1. That was kinda the point. It’s the same problem in both cases.

          This will eventually end up with poor residual value for cars and discourage new car ownership, which leads to the new paradigm of cars as service. It’s not a bright future.

        2. Sell that Peugeot ASAP and count yourself lucky. Before the CVT craps the bed, won’t be long.

          Nissans are just junk and have been for long enough that _nobody_ should touch them under any circumstances.
          Do you also own an MTD mower? At least they respect consumers intelligence enough to buy a new brand (to ruin) every five years.

          1. Aisin transmission actually.
            I had a hard to fill set of requirements that didn’t leave me a lot of options. It was a risk, we’ll see how it plays out over the next few years/decades. The hassle with trying to get ‘ownership’ of the infotainment systems isn’t a good start….

          2. Ok, months/years/decades….

            I knew the risks before I bought it. On the other hand, most owners says it’s a great vehicle, other than the Nissan parts…

    1. irox, what would your state’s Attorney General have to say about this? IANAL and all that, but it might be worth exploring the possibility that at the very least there was some misrepresentation by the dealer since you’re not getting all that you paid for (and I don’t doubt that a clever lawyer could come up with a way to drag Nissan USA into this as well).

      1. I am considering that. But I’m not sure that’s the molehill I want to spend the next year or so dying on… Will exhaust reasonable paths first, then see.

  5. When denser solid-state batteries come out, e-scooters will be light enough and safe enough to be brought with you on the metro/bus. And it’s orders of magnitude easier to manufacture one than to manufacture a car, so good luck forcing people to buy one with all sorts of stupid electronics.

    I see no point to buying a car if you live in a city that has sensible, rationally planned urban infrastructure.

    And if you don’t, try fixing that.

    1. How often have you ridden in rain or worse? I’ve done thousands of miles on a motorcycle in bad weather (above freezing) and even with appropriate gear, an adjustable windshield, grip and seat warmers, it’s pretty grueling. Summer heat can be just as devastating. Somehow I don’t see any average motorist who generally drives in a cage opting to be fully exposed the elements.

    2. Understood. However, there are Cities that have evolved over the last 100 years around the use to autos with very little planning with regards to urban transit and is these cities transit is a nightmare. Fixing transit is indeed a solution, but you have municipalities that are governed by those that do not have a clue to how to resolve such issues. Even those departments with municipalities that are also clueless and/or are highly influenced by specialty interest groups. In my city they are spending $B on light rail transit with complete and utter destruction of existing neighbo hoods… with minimal ridership. The more sensible choice would have been to use rapid bus transit that can be easily modified… even dynamically to address area population changes/needs. However, the local construction firms would not make the $B’s for their efforts and so they ensure that these ideas never get properly deliberated.

      1. There’s a common gospel that says “If you build more roads, there will be more cars”, which is then used to justify keeping the road infrastructure small and intentionally saturated in order to not spend any more money on it. Rather than make it efficient and free flowing, it’s built up with intentional bottlenecks that reduce traffic to the point that the ill-planned and poorly maintained system can cope with it.

        The gospel is of course true in a sense, but it’s because of a thing called “latent demand”. Reducing traffic by reducing roads is seen as a good thing, but that’s like reducing food waste in stores by keeping such small stocks that the shelves are always empty by the end of the day and some people can’t buy any.

      2. It doesn’t help that billionaires who haven’t ridden on public transport for decades (if ever) think that they somehow know better and can “fix” public transport, for example with Teslas in tunnels.

    1. I own 5 Veh that range from 1924 to 2003. I won’t purchase anything newer than ’06. I can and do fix all systems for them Except Major Electronics and I have Junk Yards and Spares on my Shelf.

      My Daughter needed a New Truck. It was something she was going to mostly be fixing herself.. It Ended up being a ’92 Ford.. Pars are available aftermarket, and there are re-builders that can fix the ONE AND ONLY computer on it.. and it’s a common one.. I had no Idea in ’92 that it was going to be the ‘State of the Art’ I was going to be sticking with for Autos for the rest of my life.

      My Opinion:.. Cars have now changed into Human Safety Transportation Bubbles. If an accident happens, the Device will be disposable to save the Human. Not designed to be repaired, just Minor Maintenance. Great as a Safety Device, but somewhere the Government control that was designed to make cars safer has gotten out of control.

        1. It’s not a binary choice. Modern cars are simply optimized so.

          For example, a critical part of a pillar or a box section may be made of a special high tensile strength steel to hold up in a crash. It will deform and take the hit once, but it cannot be bent back and welded together because the process would destroy the properties of the steel, rendering it unsafe for further use. To repair it, the whole section needs to be replaced. No longer can you just take a twisted chassis and put it in a jig, then bend it back to shape – bang it once and it’s ready to bale.

          Another consequence of such optimization is that cars have become less tolerant of corrosion. Where there used to be 4 mm of steel, there’s now 2 millimeters of “better” steel, and 1 millimeter of rust removes half the strength instead of a quarter.

          1. When they passed the rollover protection law, the god damn politicians were expecting stronger steel (being shysters, not metallurgists).
            Instead the car makers used the same old steal, but made the pillars into big fat blind spots.

            As proof of your wrongness r.e. 4 vs 2 mm steel. Cars got _much_ heavier when they were made stronger. 2x ‘stronger’ sheet steel doesn’t really exist, depends on how you define ‘strong’.

            I’m with Cap on keeping my old cars running. My oldest is only a 1960 though.

  6. I really don’t like the idea of vehicles taking bad (for us) ideas from the consumer electronics industry. I also pray that the cancer doesn’t spread to the small power equipment industry. I’m able to keep my small engine equipment (with some of it being over two decades old) running thanks to easily available documentation and parts.

    I want to own my vehicles and devices, not be merely granted permission to use them.

    1. Keep you old mower etc.
      Honda now ships small IC engines with _plastic_ cams.
      Because you’re only going to power wash for 10 hours max and they know it.

      They will get my 2 stroke mower from my cold dead fingers!

  7. Auto manufacturers are foaming at the mouth for this EV revolution, not because it is ‘green’ but instead it gives the promos’ and more importantly huge, wildly huge profits. Next to zero used market, which when it arrives will be a shadow of ice market, people having to buy newer, more expensive cars/trucks via no choice (if transportation is needed). Add on top a vehicle that won’t follow the same maintenance, longetivity potential. Bet they can’t wait. Auto industry is fairly stagnant already in my opinion. This is a can of worms that no one knows how big it really is until it is opened. No stopping it really, just fairly comical reading all the ‘how good at will be’ articles in various magizines, other sources and such. It Will be a mess, no question.

  8. suppose its time to just start hoarding chassis and motors from older machines and hacking together my own cars before they make that illegal. as Arnold once said “screw your freedom”… well i scoff at thee.

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