Gathering Clouds Will Form Autonomy’s Computing Backbone

Expansive cloud-computing networks are speeding today’s AV development and preparing to manage tomorrow’s data-reliant AV fleets.

Millions of connected vehicles are already leveraging the cloud, paving the digital pathways that will power autonomous vehicles. (Gerd Altmann)

You might never spot one, but computing clouds will be crucial for the success of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The titans of the automotive and digital worlds have begun aligning to create the cloud-based digital backbones that will enable AVs to operate safely on real roads and in real time. From an engineering perspective, the same networked resources derived from these partnerships currently are helping speed AV development, with connected vehicles already paving the digital pathways.

Though VW and Ford have partnered on AV development via Pittsburgh’s Argo AI, Ford is taking a different tack in the cloud, aligning with AWS. (Ford)

Cloud computing leverages global networks linking hardware-filled data centers to provide on-demand processing power and data storage needed to scale computing requirements via virtualized software environments. Data and requests can come from anywhere on the planet and be managed from equally separated servers. Cloud computing systems are maturing concurrently with AV development in a remarkable confluence that is helping to speed many AV engineering processes.

The cloud’s scalability aspect is vital, particularly in a field expanding as swiftly as connectivity/autonomy. “I can have this infrastructure available to me and I don't need to construct it,” explained William Doyle, an enterprise-level software engineer and VP of product development at Connecticut-based Medtel. “I can provision a new machine or a thousand new machines without worrying about vendors, without worrying about procurement, delivery, installation, having my own computer room, security. Everything that goes around having your own set of machines in-house goes away when you use the cloud, because somebody else is handling it.”

The cloud’s advantages do not stop at hardware, as the software is equally flexible. “The second piece of this, software-as-a-service [SaaS], is where companies are building applications on the web and everything's hosted there,” Doyle continued. “The data's hosted, the application's hosted, everybody can access it. I can start off with one customer, and when I get to my thousandth customer, it's no issue for me to scale. One of the best things the cloud provides is elastic infrastructures. I can grow and my servers will grow, automatically deploying based on the loads I'm seeing.”

AWS as first mover

Such as this Cruise Origin slated for service in Dubai, autonomous vehicles will be deployed globally, and require a worldwide network to manage and update capabilities. (Cruise)
Before autonomy, a host of connected-car services will leverage a cloud infrastructure, data that will benefit the autonomous vehicle development cycle. (VW)
Volkswagen Group’s latest efforts with Microsoft includes the development of an Automated Driving Platform (ADP), which will leverage Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to simplify processes and bring solutions to the group’s vehicles sooner on a global scale. (VW)
GM’s autonomous-vehicle subsidiary Cruise announced its Microsoft cloud alignment in January 2021, teaming up with the Seattle-based computing giant to “commercialize self-driving vehicles.” (GM)

Amazon kicked off this paradigm shift in computing resources more than a decade ago with its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-computing network, a forward-looking offshoot of its exploding retail growth. AWS now operates globally in 61 zones across 20 geographic regions on each inhabited continent save Africa. Ramping up swiftly to challenge AWS in both capability and market share are players such as Microsoft, Google, IBM, Oracle and Alibaba, with automakers already harnessing these cloud-based capabilities via connected-car services.

Ford announced the expansion of its connected-vehicle collaboration with AWS in April 2019, not surprising considering the two entities already are linked via their investments in Rivian and upcoming electrified-vehicle delivery platforms. This growing relationship includes Ford Mobility subsidiary and AWS technology partner Autonomic, which has created a “Transportation Mobility Cloud” (TMC) that will be powered by AWS. According to Ford, this setup will provide its software developers the cloud infrastructure needed to build connected vehicle services at scale.

Autonomic claims its TMC is vehicle-brand agnostic, allowing any automaker or application developers to leverage the cloud, without the time and investment required to build their own connectivity layer. “One of the many goals we have in common is to build a cohesive framework for vehicle makers and developers,” explained Gavin Sherry, co-founder and CEO of Autonomic, who noted that the strategic collaboration with AWS will greatly expand its platforms’ capability, letting clients instead focus on creating experiences that will differentiate them in the marketplace.

Also aligning with Amazon is Toyota, which announced in August 2020 that it was strengthening its global collaboration with AWS to help expand its Mobility Services Platform (MSPF). The MSPF is Toyota’s engineering ecosystem to develop and deploy the next generation of its cloud-connected vehicles. Toyota is using AWS to help process and analyze data from its worldwide fleet of connected vehicles, applying it in the near term towards connected-vehicle developments including car share, rideshare and driving-behavior-based insurance.

“Connectivity drives all of the processes of development, production, sales and service in the automotive business,” said Shigeki Tomoyama, chief information and security officer and chief production officer at Toyota Motor Corporation. The expanding relationship with AWS, Tomoyama noted, will help Toyota strengthen its vehicle data platform and CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared, Electric) activities, helping build a data-sharing foundation to accelerate its CASE technologies.

Suppliers are also working with AWS, with Continental announcing in April 2021 that they had entered a long-term collaboration to develop Continental Automotive Edge (CAEdge), a modular hardware and software platform. CAEdge connects the vehicle to the cloud via a virtual workbench to develop, supply and maintain software-intensive system functions. The platform will enable integration of new functions over the service life of the vehicle by downloading software updates.

Both Hyundai and the newly formed Stellantis automotive group already have strong ties to Waymo, an Alphabet Inc. subsidiary (Google’s parent company). Stellantis has connection via FCA’s previous commitments to Waymo and its autonomous fleet development. Though nothing has been announced, OEMs maintaining relationships with Waymo could almost certainly engage the services of the Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

GM/Cruise align with Microsoft

GM and its autonomous vehicle subsidiary Cruise announced its cloud alignment with Microsoft in January 2021, teaming to “commercialize self-driving vehicles.” According to GM, they have entered a long-term strategic relationship to bring together their software/hardware engineering expertise and cloud computing capabilities. GM also noted it will work with Microsoft as its preferred public cloud provider to accelerate its digitization initiatives. These include collaborations on storage, artificial intelligence, machine learning and opportunities to streamline digital supply chains to bring new mobility services to customers faster.

“Our mission to bring safer, better and more affordable transportation to everyone isn’t just a tech race – it’s also a trust race,” said Cruise CEO Dan Ammann, calling Microsoft a “gold standard in the trustworthy democratization of technology.” Ammann noted that Microsoft would be a force multiplier as it commercializes its AV fleet, and Cruise will leverage Microsoft’s cloud- and edge-computing platform Azure.

VW and the Car Software Organization

Though the AWS-aligned Ford and Volkswagen are heavily invested in the Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, the Volkswagen Group announced in February that it is expanding its work with Microsoft to accelerate its cloud-based AV development. Volkswagen has been the most specific on how it plans to accomplish this, creating a Car Software Organization (CSO) in 2020 within the Volkswagen Group. Currently comprised of 4,000 engineers and developers globally – with major software competence centers in Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt – CSO will work with Microsoft to build an automated driving platform (ADP).

The goal of the CSO’s ADP is “the agile development of automated driving functions,” and will use Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to simplify its development processes and bring automated driving solutions to the VW Group’s vehicles sooner “on a global scale.” Volkswagen and Microsoft have been strategic partners on the Volkswagen Automotive Cloud (VAC) since 2018. The VAC engineering team is based in Seattle, and the VAC will host all future digital services and mobility offerings.

In practice, these latest cloud-computing capabilities are an enabler of what Thomas Müller, head of ADAS & AD development at Volkswagen Group’s automotive-software subsidiary CARIAD, called “The Big Loop.” This is the cloud data architecture and related processes that enable the widely disparate VW Group’s stakeholders to work seamlessly within a common data set.

The computing infrastructure permits the gathering of data from millions of connected vehicles around the globe so that that data can be analyzed and fed back into the development cycle, to create or improve functions and features. “Twenty years ago, you developed a platform and after seven years, you had the next generation,” Müller said. “Compared to this process, of let's say over the year updating every 12 weeks, you need to have a very efficient and powerful process-driven tool chain.”

According to Müller, this close connection is crucial in what historically has been a segmented and fragmented environment. “We're talking about 70 to 100 to 150 different tools that you need for a development environment, bringing them together, understanding how to connect them from a software point of view,” he noted. “And once you have done that, having that in the cloud makes sense from many points of view.

“We can scale worldwide easily, [and] many of these tools of course need to be connected not only to us, but to our partners to get all the data that we generate in this value chain,” Müller added. “Not only in our company, but in the Volkswagen brands, in Tier 1s, in engineering partners, and so forth. So having that extremely optimized, but also scalable is one of the reasons why we're doing the ADP.”

Both VW and Microsoft will enable technology partners to enhance the creation of AV and ADAS solutions, but VW also announced in February that it intends to increase its in-house software development by 2025 to 60% from today’s 10%. The first VAC fleet road tests are expected this year, with production rollout planned for 2022. The new ADP software platform is expected to activate by the end of 2024.