Elektrobit & Sony Honda Mobility
Im Dialog mit Maria Anhalt + Dr. Siegfried Dirr + Izumi Kawanishi
Dr. Siegfried Dirr, VP Engineering Services and Technologies of Elektrobit
Izumi Kawanishi, President and COO, Sony Honda Mobility
When the great and good of the automotive industry revealed their latest innovations at the CES® (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas this year, more than ever before, software-defined mobility was front and center. Few presentations, however, captured as much attention as Sony’s news of its joint venture with Honda, their launch of the first Sony Honda Mobility (SHM) brand, AFEELA, and the unveiling of the prototype of the company’s first electric vehicle (EV).
Guiding Sony and now SHM on its journey is Elektrobit, the global automotive software provider based in Erlangen, Germany. They have collaborated on software, system design and integration for the AFEELA and predecessor SONY VISION-S prototypes. This unique partnership offers a fascinating case study of what the OEM-supplier collaboration could look like in the age of the software-defined vehicle.
Sony Honda Mobility’s vision is to create the most emotive, inspirational and connected in-vehicle experience in the automotive sector: to achieve this meant software had to come first, flipping the entire blueprint of vehicle creation on its head.
The following is an interview with Maria Anhalt, CEO of Elektrobit, Dr. Siegfried »Siggi« Dirr, VP Engineering Services and Technologies of Elektrobit, and Sony Honda Mobility President and Chief Operating Officer Izumi Kawanishi, about the special collaboration and mindset that contributed to realize the first AFEELA prototype.
We’re all familiar with Sony for its leadership in entertainment and consumer electronics and, of course, its joint venture partner, Honda, but Elektrobit may be a new name for some of our readers. Would you provide us with some background on Elektrobit’s business and why all of a sudden it is in such high demand?
Anhalt While our name may not be familiar outside of the automotive software space, you’ve most likely been driving with us. Our software powers over five billion devices in more than 600 million vehicles, which equates to approximately two thirds of all vehicles on the road today. To put that in perspective: If all vehicles using Elektrobit software were lined up, they would circle the equator 65 times.
Elektrobit has been delivering software and services for 35 years, and our customers include most of the leading companies in the automotive industry. We bridge the three segments of the emerging software-defined vehicle marketplace, serving established car-makers, industry newcomers and the tech giants who are making their first major strides in automotive. We’re unique in that we speak »all three languages« with products and services that can be tailored to each segment’s needs. Our offerings encompass software for car infrastructure, connectivity and security, automated driving and related tools, engineering services, user experience and consulting, so something of a unique proposition in our space currently.
In terms of the industry today, what has clearly changed is the wide acceptance that the future of value generation in automotive lies to a large extent in software. While the software-defined mobility revolution is for many a disruptive shift in mindset and approach, for us it’s second nature.
So yes, we’re seeing a lot of interest in our software but also in the engineering services that allow our customers not only to pull everything together, but to explore new possibilities with us.
To put that in perspective: If all vehicles using Elektrobit software were lined up, they would circle the equator 65 times.
There is a lot of excitement around SHM and the new AFEELA brand and EV prototype. What is special about the brand and prototype? What was the inspiration behind it?
Kawanishi When we started our automotive venture – which began with the first VISION-S prototype – our goal was to reimagine mobility with a vision that was uniquely our own. This required significant research and development. While Sony Group has presence in many areas, we are not automotive experts. It was clear to us that we needed partners who were not only experts in automotive, but also had the vision and ambition to embark on a journey with us.
We first met Elektrobit in 2019. We were impressed by the company’s automotive software experience, which uniquely included automotive software and services as well as mobile devices. Many of its engineers had previously worked at Nokia and had special expertise in mobile technology development. This was important to us, as we knew that integration with smartphones and IoT devices as well as cloud connectivity would continue to be important.
Dirr Elektrobit was very flattered to be approached by Sony, and we realized right away that the collaboration would be different and special. Sony envisioned a vehicle that brought together the concepts of safety, entertainment, and adaptability. Sony’s vision was quite different from that of an established automotive company. While established carmakers may tell us, »I want to stream a movie or music in the car,« Sony started with the general premise of »we want to entertain and inspire in the car.« That’s a very different starting point and it allowed us to bring the full breadth of our experience and creativity into play.
What capabilities did Elektrobit provide to the Sony VISION-S and what does it provide now to the SHM AFEELA prototype? Tell us more about the role of software in the vehicles of tomorrow?
Kawanishi Software is instrumental to our vision, and we brought in experts including Elektrobit to support us in making this vision a reality. Elektrobit provided its industry-leading software products, plus unique systems, and software expertise. This enabled us to bring a unique and highly intuitive experience in the VISION-S cockpit.
It has been an extremely rewarding collaboration. We worked together to improve the in-cabin experience with our first two VISION-S prototype vehicles, and this has now been extended to the AFEELA prototype. As a parent company of SHM, Sony Group has vast experience in entertainment and consumer electronics, and Elektrobit knows automotive software and cockpit design. Together, we have formed a strong collaboration.
We worked together to improve the in-cabin experience with our first two VISION-S prototype vehicles, and this has now been extended to the AFEELA prototype.
Dirr Sony wanted us to help realize its vision of providing an intuitive, seamless and inspiring user experience combined with elegant design. For the VISION-S concept car, Elektrobit specifically developed a cockpit system that included Sony’s UX design, our infotainment software and high-performance computing to power the cockpit domain with fully-featured, customer-specific software packages. We also supported the integration of digital mirrors, 3D glass and a door-to-door display panel into the cockpit. Co-creating the UX concept and defining the SW Architecture together was crucial to fulfill both the automotive specifications and the consumer needs.
As Kawanishi-san points out, the collaboration has also allowed us to showcase the many advantages of agile development, which we’ve been practicing for many years. Agile approaches focus on cross-functional collaboration, flexibility and iterative improvements. It provides many benefits to a complex project.
Agile development sounds interesting. Is it new to automotive? Can you explain a scenario in which agile development benefitted the Sony VISION-S and AFEELA projects?
Dirr Agile principles have found their way into the automotive industry, but our approach is unique. We have applied our experience and knowledge of starting and executing product development from a blank sheet of paper with our premium OEM customers. Our virtual tools allow our customers to co-design and co-develop the user interface and related software. The resulting software is mature yet constantly evolving, which enables end users to benefit from a much more up-to-date feature set.
Anhalt When I met Kawanishi-san and his team for the first time, I had just been named CEO of Elektrobit and asked why they chose to work with my company. They told me they were impressed by Elektrobit’s ability to engage in iterative, evolving and very intense joint development cycles. Our software and automotive expertise – while obviously important – was secondary.
The Sony team pointed out to me that, based on conversations they had with automotive OEMs, the carmakers were unable to engage in this intense manner and neither were the established software vendors. As Sony was embarking on a journey to bring a dream to life, it was critical that they chose a partner capable of fully engaging with them to make their dream a reality.
Sony has been an amazing collaborator. The Sony team has attended every single monthly sprint review in which everyone involved – including Sony executives involved in the project – are deeply engaged in reviewing the project, adapting requirements, and evaluating use cases.
The mindset of Sony Honda Mobility is clearly fresh and unique. Why is this significant?
Anhalt I cannot emphasize this enough: the SHM approach to vehicle design has flipped the model on the established carmaker-supplier relationship. In this new model, Elektrobit is not just a software supplier that was brought in after the fact, to do a specific, pre-defined job, we’ve been a collaborator from the get-go. Sony understands that to create the most compelling experiences and generate the most value, software needs a place at the table early on, given its important and growing role in defining the overall user experience.
Kawanishi Our focus is on delivering against the Sony Honda Mobility purpose, to »Move people, through the pursuit of innovation with diverse inspirations.« We wanted to look beyond the automotive industry into other areas that inspire our customers, expanding the mobility space into an emotional and entertainment space.
What are some of the unique features that software is specifically enabling in the new AFEELA prototype?
Anhalt The SHM AFEELA truly represents a sea-change in how vehicles are designed, with software playing an increasingly important role, both for core vehicle operation and as a way for carmakers to innovate. Software takes center stage in the AFEELA cockpit, allowing Sony to integrate its latest audio and camera sensor technologies as well as an incredible array of gaming, movie and music content. SHM’s newly announced partnership with Epic Games takes this to another level, opening up unparalleled experiential possibilities.
Dirr Elektrobit developed the cockpit system for the AFEELA prototype including software for the Qualcomm HPC processors and the software stack powering all cockpit displays. In addition, we provided integration services for the system encompassing all software and hardware components and applications from Sony and its partners.
Among the Elektrobit innovations debuting in the AFEELA prototype is a theming engine which will allow end-customers to update the design of their vehicle’s cockpit system on all screens by simply using a smartphone app. This on-demand approach to human-machine interface promises to unlock a new level of vehicle personalization.
Our virtual tools allow our customers to co-design and co-develop the user interface and related software. The resulting software is mature yet constantly evolving, which enables end users to benefit from a much more up-to-date feature set.
Dr. Siegfried Dirr
What can other automakers learn from the SHM approach?
Anhalt If there is anything other automakers can learn it is that software must be the starting point of their vision. We successfully showcased the software-defined approach first in the Sony VISION-S concept vehicle and now with the AFEELA prototype. Close-knit collaboration and building a rich ecosystem are key success factors. This is an extremely novel approach for automotive.
As I see it, all three types of companies in this emerging automotive space – the established OEMs, technology companies and industry newcomers – can all benefit from a user-centric, software-first approach.
Kawanishi Partnerships are more important than ever. We understand this and made it a priority to bring in expert collaborators. Elektrobit was one of the first. Obviously, our joint venture with Honda created SHM, and we now have major partnerships with Qualcomm and Epic Games, among others, as we look ahead to entering production in 2025 and bring the first AFEELA cars to the road in 2026. We are very excited about the journey ahead.